The Apprentice: John Deere Helps Refugees in Germany

Internship program prepares refugees for the workforce

Ali Akimi, an immigrant from Afghanistan, was hired by John Deere after completing a special John Deere training internship program.

“Through John Deere, my dream has come true.”

This is how Hesso Abullah, a refugee from Syria, summed up his experience in a special John Deere training program.

In 2015,  European Union countries were flooded with political and economic refugees, an estimated one million of them settling in Germany. The refugees, primarily from Middle Eastern and Northern African countries, arrived ill-prepared to join the German labor force.

“The problem was that the refugees had not yet a work permit from the authorities and had too little linguistic competence to start with John Deere,” said Arthur Zimmer, supervisor, Apprentice Shop, John Deere Mannheim Works.

“But we wanted to be involved in helping these refugees,” Zimmer added. “So Ingolf Prüfer, who is now retired, proposed a training project through Südwestmetall.” Südwestmetall is a German employers association that is active in various areas of vocational education and training, such as language instruction.

Ali Akimi (left) and Hesso Abullah, a refugee from Syria, spent 12 months in a John Deere internship program in which they acquired and developed useful skills at the same time they were contributing to the company. Both were hired on as full-time employees.

The program Deere developed, called Company Entry Qualification (EQ), offers an internship lasting from nine to 12 months. The goal is to teach basic vocational skills to prepare the refugees for full integration into German society. The program also is open to German citizens.

The program’s first participant was a woman who is a refugee from Hungary.

“When they’re in the EQ program, the refugees spend one day per week at a vocational school in Mannheim learning basic skills,” said Peter Weinsheimer, training foreman. “They also spend one day per week at BBQ, which is a vocational education and training company operated by Südwestmetall. They spend the remaining three days in workshops at the John Deere training center.”

Throughout the program, the participants acquire and develop useful skills at the same time they’re contributing to the company. For example, Jishan Ahmed, a refugee from Bangladesh, was accepted to the program in 2017, and next year he will complete his training as a much‑in‑demand industrial mechanic. Once the refugees complete the program, they’ll be prepared to enter the workforce or to pursue further education. Last February, four participants in the program successfully completed their training as metal specialists.

Not everything has gone smoothly, of course.

“One of the biggest problems at the beginning was intercultural differences,” Zimmer said. “Because they hadn’t been in Germany long enough to acquire basic language skills, they weren’t able to attend a German-speaking vocational school. Also, we had to develop a mutual understanding of our different approaches to norms and values.”

The company has welcomed groups of both immigrants and German citizens into the internship program.

These include punctuality and accountability. In some cultures, an 8 a.m. start can mean 8:10 or 8:20 or even 9 a.m., whereas in Germany, an 8 a.m. start means you will start at 8 a.m. Similarly, in some cultures, it’s acceptable to be absent from work without explanation for up to several weeks and then return to work. In a factory and in most other places of work in a modern economy, this behavior would be highly disruptive.

Legal and bureaucratic requirements present additional challenges, added Weinsheimer. “They need a work permit and a residence permit. They need to establish their current status — are they in the asylum procedure or the rejected asylum procedure? Will they be given the right to stay in Germany?”

Despite the obstacles, Deere’s EQ program is invaluable to refugees who need help taking that first step toward developing the skills necessary to successfully integrate into their new country, through both employment and social connections.

"Some young interns burst into tears of joy. I hadn't noticed such a feeling or emotion in our professional world for a long time.” —Arthur Zimmer, supervisor, Apprentice Shop, John Deere Mannheim Works

In 2017, Deere accepted its first refugee directly into the company’s apprentice training through the traditional recruiting process. Since then, the company has welcomed five more workers — three native Germans and two refuges — from the EQ program into apprentice training.

In September, it will welcome another three native Germans and two refugees into the apprentice training program. In November, three native Germans and two refugees will start their EQ training.

“I find the EQ team in the John Deere apprenticeship program very nice,” said Hazima Mhd. Issam, a Syrian refugee. “We support each other and like to be together outside work as well. My greatest joy was when I learned from the apprentice shop foreman that beginning in September, I could start an apprenticeship as an industrial mechanic.”

Abullah, a former EQ intern who is now a first-year apprentice, shared similar impressions. “I like working in the field of metal technology and the many safety instructions. John Deere takes care of its employees, as demonstrated by its workplace safety.”

“My favorite part of the job is telling the young people they’re going to be educated,” said Zimmer. “This time was a very emotional step for all interns as well as for me. Some young interns burst into tears of joy. I hadn’t noticed such a feeling or emotion in our professional world for a long time.”

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The Apprentice: John Deere Helps Refugees in Germany

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