Porsche training is prize for lucky few refugees
Ammar Alkhouli "dreamed of owning a Porsche" when he lived in Syria, but he never imagined that he would one day get training from the German automobile giant to help build its luxury cars.
Aged just 19, Ammar was one of 13 asylum seekers to be offered a place on a refugee integration scheme launched by the Stuttgart-based company in March this year, in response to the massive influx of refugees to Germany in 2015.
Porsche wanted to "show the welcoming German culture and allow people to establish themselves as well and as quickly as possible," technical training director Norbert Goeggerle explains.
In this first year there were around 100 candidates for the five-month course, which offered German language, history and culture classes and coaching through the bureaucracy as well as instruction on business and technical training.
Participants, hailing from Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria and aged between 16 and 38, were each paid a monthly stipend of 250 euros ($280).
Now Ammar has secured a three-year apprenticeship as a mechatronics technician, a job where "you can dismantle and reassemble the engine," he explains, his eyes gleaming with excitement. When he arrived in Germany two years earlier, it was far from a given that Ammar would make such progress.
He didn't speak a single word of Goethe's language -- a far cry from the confident sentences he now produces with a slight accent.
"I fled for Germany because the situation in Syria is very bad, you can't live well there," he said. "My German friends tell me I was lucky to be at Porsche and that I had to make the most of it," he added.
Porsche, a subsidiary of car behemoth Volkswagen and a synonym for German engineering excellence, is a sought-after employer even among Germans. The firm is well-known for paying workers generous annual bonuses -- which this year amounted to more than 8,000 euros per person.
Most of the refugees spoke very little German at the beginning of their five-month course. But training director Goeggerle was impressed by their "extremely strong motivation".
"We explained to them that the idea wasn't to offer them a job at Porsche, but they said to themselves, 'If I give it my all, it might work out,' and we noticed that. They were always punctual and very reliable," he said.
Another participant, Zaryab Imran, 18, had never heard of the carmaker when she arrived in Germany in April 2015.
"I wasn't safe in Pakistan," she explains in more hesitant German.
But she has secured a further training place at Porsche, heading for an apprenticeship, after she showed an interest in the cars' leather-upholstered interiors.
In fact, most of the 13 participants will stay at Porsche for multidisciplinary training, apprenticeships or even a full job offer on the production line.
While Porsche isn't short of applicants, German business is well aware that over the long term the refugees could be a boon to the country's economy.
Many business leaders welcomed 2015's influx as a potential source of new labour, at a time when Europe's biggest economy is struggling with an ageing population that is resulting in shortages of skilled labour in critical sectors like automobiles.
But refugees won't be a quick fix, as it will in most cases take years of education and training to prepare them for work in a German factory.
Many large- and medium-sized business have launched initiatives to try and smooth refugees' paths onto the labour market.
They've often found themselves blocked by complex bureaucracy, language barriers or the candidates' lack of qualifications. In the 2014-15 academic year, just 3.0 percent of companies that take apprentices counted refugees among them.
"Many small companies don't have the resources to train refugees," Goeggerle said. While Porsche would not reveal how much its integration has cost, it is repeating the exercise later this year, with 15 new participants set to start 10 months of training in December.