Austria: Labour market integration and competences of refugees

Competence checks of refugees have shown that they are better qualified than was previously thought. However, a recent study has found that their chances of being employed are worse than for other migrant groups. The Public Employment Service has reserved €68 million for measures in 2016 targeted at their integration into the labour market. 


Tens of thousands of refugees entered Austria in 2015. Many of them travelled on to other countries (mostly Germany), but a large number stayed and applied for asylum. There were almost 90,000 applications for asylum in Austria in 2015, which puts it among the top three receiving countries in the EU28, after Germany and Sweden. According to figures from the Federal Ministry of Internal Affairs, the majority of applicants came from Afghanistan (25,500), Syria (24,500) and Iraq (13,600) (PDF).

Unemployment among refugees 

The integration of refugees in the labour market has become a major topic of political debate in Austria. There is no indication in data from the Public Employment Service (AMS) whether a registered employee is a refugee, so the unemployment rate of refugees cannot be calculated. However, the number of unemployed refugees has risen rapidly over the past few years. In 2015, some 17,300 people who had been granted asylum were actively searching for a job in Austria. In 2016, the number is expected to rise by 30,000. This comes during a period of high national unemployment (PDF), which was  8.6% in May 2016.

Disadvantaged labour market position

A recent study by the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO) shows that migrants who have come to Austria seeking asylum have less chance of successful labour market integration (PDF) than other migrant groups, with female refugees facing specific disadvantages.

The researchers analysed the educational levels and labour market situation of all refugees who had arrived in Austria since the 1960s. They used Statistics Austria’s micro census ad-hoc module 2014 on the labour market integration of migrants, which means that refugees who came to Austria at the height of the latest refugee movement in 2015 are not considered in the study. The research found that 62% of refugees who entered Austria between 2005 and 2014 had completed compulsory education. However, almost 20% were younger than 25, an age at which they were unlikely to have completed a higher education, especially having lived in a war zone. A large majority (84.4%) of those who arrived between 2005 and 2014 stated that their education is not formally recognised in Austria. In addition, 46% have no or limited German language skills. Compared with other migrant groups, those entering Austria seeking asylum have a lower employment rate and higher unemployment rate. In 2014, their employment rate was 60.4% (compared with 64.9% among all foreign-born groups), and the difference in their unemployment rates was over 4 percentage points (15.9% compared with 11.3%). Women refugees are even more disadvantaged than women in other migrant groups.

The comparatively lower employment rates of refugees are partially a structural problem, according to the researchers: it takes a few years for them to settle into the labour market and they lack networks. Therefore, they integrate into the labour market less successfully than other foreign-born people who have entered Austria and who are not seeking asylum (for example, labour migrants). However, as their stay lengthens, the refugees catch up and the disadvantage seems to decrease.

Overqualification and underqualification

As well as the differences in labour market attachment between migrant groups, indicators showing the mismatch between job and education also differ. More than a quarter (26.8%) of all employed migrants who have arrived seeking asylum  work in jobs for which they are formally overqualified, compared with 20.2% in all migrant groups. This shows that, due to a lack of German language skills, they often have problems in using their qualifications in the labour market. At the same time, comparatively few (17%), compared with other migrant groups, work in jobs for which they are underqualified. This demonstrates that through learning by doing, they can get access to jobs that have higher qualification requirements. The formal educational attainment of these migrants does not correlate with the likelihood of employment; however, a lack of German language skills reduces their chances of participation and employment significantly. Thus, German language skills are more crucial to the success of labour market integration than formal education and, at the same time, poor German language skills impede the use of a person’s formal education in employment.

High qualification levels 

To assess educational levels and to improve their labour market integration, AMS in 2015 conducted competence checks of newly arrived refugees who had obtained political asylum in Austria and presented the results at a press conference in January 2016. A total of  898 people (451 men and 447 women) took part in the five-week programme, which was set up as a combination of group work and individual work with practical trials.

It is important to note that the selection of candidates was not representative and was conducted on a ‘first come, first serve’ basis with people who already had some German language skills and who were interested in an assessment of their occupational competency and on gaining an understanding of their future job prospects in Austria. Of the sample, 26% were from Afghanistan, 21% from Syria, 11% from Iran, 4% from Iraq and 38% from other countries. Courses were provided by native-speaking Arabic, Farsi, Russian and French trainers.

The results showed that refugees from Iran, Iraq and Syria had the highest qualification levels, with 90% of the Iranian, 73% of the Iraqi and 67% of the Syrian participants having a qualification above compulsory schooling level (vocational training or secondary or tertiary education). Female refugees had higher education attainment than male refugees but often had no practical work experience. The least qualified group among the participants were Afghans, with 20% having finished compulsory schooling only, and 30% having no formal education (of which a third could be classed as illiterate).

The results of the competence check show that the educational levels of the participants were, generally speaking, higher than expected, with the exception of refugees from Afghanistan. Compared with the educational levels of refugees who entered Austria on asylum grounds between 2005 and 2014 (see above), the qualifications of participants in the competence check were much higher, confirming that the results are not representative.

Further competence checks planned 

Johannes Kopf, a member of the AMS executive board, noted that, in theory, a person’s chances of employment are generally higher with any sort of qualification. However, he added that labour market integration would not automatically be easy for refugees who have qualifications as they often have scant German language skills and little access to the social networks that could help them find a job. Furthermore, many refugees are traumatised, and only about a third of the people who were tested could provide an official document showing their level of formal education.

AMS plans to conduct another 13,500 competence checks in 2016 on people who have been granted asylum in Austria. Tens of thousands of placements on German language courses will be offered to refugees who have been granted asylum and who are searching for employment. Further training and educational measures and support for labour market integration, as well as support with validating education received abroad, will be provided. AMS has reserved €68 million for measures in 2016 targeted at the integration of recognised refugees into the labour market; almost 34,000 people will benefit from this.

Social partner and government initiatives

In a mutual position paper in April 2016, the social partners demanded faster and broader opening of the labour market to asylum seekers, and this was recently welcomed by Christian Kern, who became Austria’s federal chancellor in May 2016. Currently, employment for asylum seekers is strictly limited and quite marginal: after a waiting period of three months from the application for asylum, employment is allowed only in tourism and agriculture and apprenticeships in occupations where there are labour shortages, as well as community service work for a small compensation. Exclusion from employment during waiting periods of several months and occasionally even years (such as when appealing against a ruling several times) only increases the alienation from the labour market. 

The federal government recently introduced a bill on the recognition of qualifications earned abroad (the Recognition and Valuation Act, AuBG), to be implemented within the coming weeks. Specifically, it provides for:

  • faster recognition of qualifications;
  • the expansion of information centres for refugees;
  • the implementation of assessment methods;
  • more flexible procedures for those who have no formal evidence (certificates) of their qualifications.

This new law aims for quicker and more qualification-appropriate integration of refugees into the national labour market and a faster validation process.



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