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Immigrant executives

April 13, 2011

Skilled migrants have a hard time forging a career in Germany. But thanks to globalization, their perspectives are improving, insiders say.

A Chinese worker at a German chemical company
People's origins are less important as companies go globalImage: picture alliance/dpa

When Zhengrong Liu arrived in Germany 20 years ago, he was forced to take odd jobs just to keep his head above water. He worked as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant, as a newspaper delivery man, and even got experience on the factory floor.

"To say that I had a plan back then would an exaggeration," Liu reflects.

At that time his career prospects in Germany were pretty bleak. Liu did have a degree in education, politics and English, but that didn't qualify him for a job in business - and it would have been even tougher to get into academia.

Just a third of skilled migrants in Germany find a job that corresponds to their qualifications. That's according to Ingrid Jungwirth, an immigration expert at Humboldt University in Berlin. For Germans, she says, the figure is twice as high.

The same goes for management-level positions: while just under 17 percent of German graduates make it to the top, only 8 percent of immigrants with equivalent qualifications match them.

On the career ladder

So it wouldn't be surprising if Zhengrong Liu was still slogging away in a factory somewhere. But in fact that's not the case: Liu is director of human resources for the chemical company Lanxess, based in Leverkusen, and is responsible for about 15,000 employees worldwide. When he took up the position seven years ago some people had reservations, not just about his background but also because, at 35, he was seen as a youngster.

Zhengroug Liu, director of human resources at Lanxess
Zhengrong Liu made it to the top of his chemical companyImage: Lanxess

"A lot of people wondered whether I would understand their way of working, whether I was capable of doing the job," Liu told Deutsche Welle. "I had to prove that I could do it through my work and in the way I acted - which I've more or less achieved."

It was a long journey to get to the top - and Liu also got lucky. As a student he gave Chinese lessons to managers at the chemical group Bayer - and was then asked if he would like to work for Bayer in China. His task was to develop a training program. In that role Liu met a number of company executives, who recognized his talent and promoted him."Otherwise it would have been much harder to get a foot in the door of any business with my degree subjects," Liu explained. Finally he was asked to join Lanxess, one of the companies in the Bayer group.

Networking skills

Ingrid Jungwirth argues that exceptional skills aren't enough on their own - for anyone wanting to make it to the top.

"The decisive factors are the same for all high-level jobs: contacts and information," Jungwirth said.

She advises young professionals to build themselves up systematically, for example by getting involved in industry organizations.

But once you've made it to management level, foreign origins can be a real advantage, according to Sörge Drosten from the consultancy firm Kienbaum.

"Most companies operate on a global scale and therefore are actively looking for people from all over the world," Drosten explained. He added this has become normal in the meantime; Around a third of managers who are headhunted by Kienbaum come from outside Germany.

Guest workers in Russia
It's a far cry from the traditional image of guest workersImage: DW

On the global market of elite workers it's long been the case that where you're from only plays a minor role. But it's different for those who don't arrive in Germany as fully-formed top international executives.

"When you immigrate without a contract lined up, it's really tough," Jungwirth said. "In that case you have to try and get into your target field by doing internships, part-time work or further study."

Integration as career requirement

Sörge Drosten has an encouraging message for those who want to move to Germany: in the coming 10 to 20 years, he says, excellent opportunities will emerge.

"Because of demographic gaps there will be lots of possibilities to climb up the ladder," Drosten said. He added that it was important to try to integrate by learning German and establishing a circle of friends.

Zhengrong Liu emphasizes that talent and language skills alone aren't enough to forge a career in Germany - he says you have to express an interest in your surroundings.

"Without integrating in that way, getting a top job in an international company would be unimaginable," Liu says. That's why he thinks his time as a waiter and newspaper delivery man was worthwhile: "By doing that I got to know many different sides of German society - first hand."

Author: Dennis Stute / ji
Editor: Nancy Isenson