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In Germany, Aging Companies Look To Refugees


More than a million refugees came to Germany last year after fleeing hardship and war. Helping them is proving expensive. Germany expects to spend more than $15 billion this year. But there may be upsides for the German economy, as Susanna Capelouto of member station WABE found out when she traveled to northern Germany.

SUSANNA CAPELOUTO, BYLINE: Josef Terhalle is a carpenter at heart, but runs a construction company of 230 employees in Ottenstein, a community on the Dutch border. Usually, they build prefabricated schools and day care centers, but these days they're building apartments for refugees.

Using a nail gun, a worker builds a wall. The blueprints he's following aren't much different from the ones he uses for schools, except, of course, the apartments have more walls and bathrooms.

JOSEF TERHALLE: (Foreign language spoken).

CAPELOUTO: "It's like a Lego system," Terhalle says. It's a flexible apartment building that can house 100 refugees. Should they move on, the structure can be turned into a school or get moved somewhere else. For now, the orders from local governments are keeping his employees busy and many are even earning overtime.

HERBERT BRUCKER: A lot of that money will arrive in the pockets of Germans.

CAPELOUTO: Herbert Brucker is an economist with the Institute of Employment Research in Nuremberg. He says while refugees get much of the government money for food and clothing, German workers get a good bit of it, too.

BRUCKER: Fifty-five percent will be spent for social work, for construction, for housing, for bureaucracy.

CAPELOUTO: Brucker is optimistic that Germany can handle spending more than 14 billion euros on refugees. It's only half of 1 percent of the country's GDP, he says.

BRUCKER: That means of 100 euros you earn, 50 cents you have to spend for the refugees. That is something that a rich economy in an upswing of a different (ph) cycle can afford.

CAPELOUTO: Of course, many Germans have security and social stability concerns. They worry about terrorists and criminals coming in with the refugees. And many of the newcomers aren't very skilled, which will likely be a drag on the economy, says Panu Poutvaara, head of migration research at the Ifo Center, a think tank in Munich.

PANU POUTVAARA: What is bad news is that many of them have rather limited language skills and qualifications.

CAPELOUTO: And he says Germany needs skilled workers to replace those who are retiring.

POUTVAARA: But what is good is that refugees are mostly young, so that means that they have potentially a long working life ahead of this.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

CAPELOUTO: One of those future skilled workers could be Mohammad Saad. He was taking a German class near Terhalle's factory. He's 21 and fled Syria seven months ago. He says he's a heating and air conditioning technician.

MOHAMMAD SAAD: I want to work here. I don't need study. I have diploma. But now I just need to learn some Deutsche language, German language.

CAPELOUTO: Lots of refugees are taking German classes like this one, which was created when the government hired more teachers. So the optimists hope this all comes together. Teachers get jobs. Germany needs young workers. Saad needs a paycheck, and when he gets one, he'll become a taxpayer. But for now, at least, that economic happy ending is a long way off, if, for no other reason than the German bureaucracy. It can't keep up with the surge in refugees seeking documents to work legally. Last year, only about 1 in 10 refugees was able to get a work permit. For NPR News, I'm Susanna Capelouto. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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