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In Germany, Asylum-Seekers Could Fill A Chronic Workforce Need

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Refugees line up to apply for asylum at a reception center in Berlin, Germany. Figures released last week showed that about 180,000 asylum applications were filed in the first six months of 2015, more than twice as many as in the same period last year.

For pharmacists in ever-diverse Berlin, communicating with customers requires a variety of languages.

Just ask German pharmacist Julia al-Erian, who tries in English to engage a young Arab man who is trying to buy acne cream. He gives her a blank stare, so she tries explaining in German how the medicated lotion works.

He looks perplexed, says "hold on" in German, then turns to a friend and speaks Arabic.

Recognizing the man's language, Erian calls for Mayssoun Alkhlaif, a Syrian refugee. Alkhlaif is also a pharmacist, with 10 years of experience, who fled to Germany with her husband and daughters from Damascus about 18 months ago.

Alkhlaif explains to the young man in Arabic how to use the acne cream, and he looks relieved. Her German boss is also relieved, because Alkhlaif filled one of her long-standing vacancies.

Erian says she's one of 50 pharmacists in Berlin desperately looking for help. For two years, the position of a pharmaceutical assistant had been vacant. The German pharmacist says she only found Alkhlaif because they have a mutual friend.

German officials have struggled with the arrival of a record number of refugees and asylum-seekers this year who are draining local resources and prompting calls for increased deportations. But German businesses and labor officials see an opportunity in these newcomers to ease a chronic shortage of skilled workers.

A frantic search for hires is common in Germany, says Herbert Brücker, an economist with the Institute for Employment Research in Nuremberg.

"We have shortages in the labor market," Brücker says. "My assessment is that asylum-seekers and refugees might be both an important resource for the labor market in the high-skilled segment as well as in the less-skilled segment, for example, in agriculture, in hotels and restaurants, in health care."

Brücker says Germany has programs to attract qualified foreign workers, but the hurdles are pretty high, especially for asylum-seekers. He says those who've been in Germany for three months are technically allowed to work, but have to prove there aren't Germans, other European Union citizens or foreigners with work permits who can fill the job.

Brücker says German employers are also reluctant to hire asylum-seekers because it's unclear whether they'll be around long enough to make it worthwhile. The German cabinet this week decided to make it easier for younger asylum-seekers to apply for internships.

Günter Krings of the German Interior Ministry, who was at that meeting, warns against making it too easy for refugees and asylum-seekers to find jobs here. He says if the door is opened too wide, it would encourage even more people to come to Germany and apply for asylum.

Meanwhile, Syrian pharmacist Alkhalaif had an easier time finding a job because she isn't an asylum-seeker.

She says her brother-in-law, a doctor in southern Germany, was able to bring her family and more than a dozen other relatives here by promising he would be responsible for them.

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