Interview: How English helps integration


We set out to retrieve first-hand knowledge of political endeavours undertaken to facilitate life of immigrants. Chris Pyak aims to increase life chances for Europeans and immigrants by reducing obstacles in the labour market. As the managing director of Immigrant Spirit GmbH, he provides career opportunities for professionals from all over the world. Since November 2015, he has been an elected representative to the Steering Committee of the Individual Members of the ALDE party (Europe’s liberals). Chris has lived in five European countries and has now set up camp in Düsseldorf, Germany.

Interview by Kapuczino

You are a journalist who first got into coaching before founding a company and joining a European party. How did all that string together?

I have become active in European politics to help increase the individual freedom of Europeans, especially in the labour market. Last year I got elected into the Steering Committee of the individual members of the ALDE party, which is the liberal party in Europe.

Recruiting, coaching, writing and my political work all feed from the same source – my desire to pave a way through the multitude of obstacles that keep individuals from reaching their goals, and in turn help them contribute to society. I meet so many talented people from all over the world, but when they come to Germany, all their experience, education and talent amounts to ‘zero’. It is a sign of disrespect that makes me very angry, because it’s both arrogant and stupid.

We read that you want to create jobs for Europe’s lost generation. Who exactly is lost, and how can their chances be saved?

The labour market in Europe is not working properly. Half of the young people in Greece and Spain are unemployed, and a quarter of those in Italy and France. This is not only an economic problem; it’s a total disaster for young professionals. Imagine you finish university and then you’re unable to find a proper job for three years. Half of what you have learnt will be out of date before you are able to get your career off the ground, which will make it even harder for you to find a job in the first place.

At the same time, Northern countries – and especially Germany – are in need of skilled labour. It’s like a poison that slowly kills you. Right now, our labour force shrinks by 100,000 people per year. With the baby-boomer generation retiring and a lack of young people to replace them, this gap will soon increase to an annual 500,000 people in about five years’ time.

Ultimately, an ever slimming work force will have to feed more and more retirees. My wife will give birth to our son this year, and by the time he reaches the age of 18, statutory levies going into Germany’s Federal Pension Fund will have increased by 50%. He is going to have to pay to support the baby-boomer generation.

What needs to be done to avert the consequences of the inverted age pyramid?

First, we need to improve labour mobility. Theoretically speaking, Europeans do have the right to work everywhere in the EU. In practice, however, employers will not consider taking you on if you don’t speak the local language. The very low labour mobility index here is only 10 per cent of that in the United States. This is further exacerbated by the circumstance of only 3% of all job offers in Germany being available in English. Without any command of the German language, 97% of the job market is closed off for you.

Yet it is important to understand that language is not a decisive factor for most jobs. Among the top 40 highest sought-for jobs in Germany, there are positions such as Software Developers, Marketing Specialists, Sales Managers, Business Analysts and any perceivable position in IT. It is a very common occurrence that smart professionals start working in English, do a great job and learn the local language ‘on the job’.

This is why an initial impetus needs to see employers encouraging the recruitment of professionals who are able to speak English before providing their employees with an opportunity to learn the local language at work. A very smooth way to achieve this goal is job sharing. My friends Anna and Jana from offer this opportunity with great success to companies.

My ultimate goal is that every individual can take any job for which they are qualified, everywhere in Europe. And that implies that people can freely choose to live wherever they want.

How can you work in a different place from where you live?

Look at the Netherlands for a starting point. Last year, their parliament created the ‘Right to work from home office.’ If you work in a company with more than ten employees for six months or more, you have the legal right to work from home. It would be down to the employer to provide evidence in cases where working from home is thought impossible.

Let’s think a few years ahead into the future. If your Dutch employer thought you really did a great job over a matter of years, would he really care whether you worked from home at the other end of the city or at the other end of Europe? Probably not.

Instead of observing the time you spend behind your desk, the home office law encourages employers to look at the results they want to get. My hope is that it will also open employers’ eyes for the contribution that ‘unusual’ candidates can make instead of capitalising on superficial differences such as language, location etc.

How important is being able to speak English for immigrants when it comes to making professional progress?

If you don’t speak English and can’t use computers, you are an illiterate. It may sound harsh, but that’s reality.

The city of Düsseldorf has now given the all clear for English as an additional service language in city administration. What part did you have in this, and why is it so important?

Every year, 15,000 EU citizens and foreigners move to Düsseldorf. The city is the third most popular location for international companies to establish headquarters in Europe. Only London and Paris are more successful.

The main reason for allowing English as an additional service language is, of course, an improvement of the service at hand. German bureaucracy can pose a trying experience, even for Germans. Foreigners who have just arrived here find it extremely hard to cope with. There is no reason to make it even harder by refusing to speak the world’s most commonly accepted business language with them.

By the way, the city administration is now training their employees in English, and they are quite excited with it. Especially older employees are very glad about the opportunity to improve their language skills since it increases both their professional and their personal quality of life.

Since you are a member of ALDE – the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe – and also a delegate of the party’s congress, your political life must be quite busy. What kind of an influence can you as an individual yield?

I was surprised how ‘easy’ it was to change the life of 15,000 people per year for the better, even if it was just in a small way.

The ‘English as a service language’ initiative started with a number of events in my living room. I invited expatriates and liberal politicians to discuss the obstacles that immigrants face in Germany. The events where awesome, because the politicians spend most of their time listening and trying to understand the situation.

Even Alexander Graf Lambsdorff (Vice President of the European Parliament) came to visit us. Also, Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann (Vice Chair of FDP in Germany) and Johannes Vogel, who worked in the strategic department of the ‘Zentrale Auslandsvermittlung der Arbeitsagentur’ provided us with a profound inside of the situation of foreigners in Germany. The latter is also the General Secretary of the FDP in North-Rhine Westfalia. At one time, we also visited the federal state parliament here to discuss with Joachim Stamp, who is a member of parliament and very committed to integration.

What surprised me in all these discussions – and also later when I pushed for this vote in the FDP parliamentary group – was that once they understood all angles of the problem, they acted very quickly.

After about eight months of lobbying, we won the vote on ‘English as a service language’ in the city council. It didn’t stop there, either. More than ten other cities have taken up my initiative by now. The Germany-wide FDP also adopted the goal ‘English as a service language’ in their agenda for the whole of Germany. And last November, the European ALDE party committed itself to push for ‘start in English, learn the local language on the job’ for Europe.

An individual can make a real impact if you are able to get your facts straight, and if you are able to phrase your idea in a way that shows how they help the goals of your partners. The way to success is not confrontation, but cooperation. And that’s quite a hopeful conclusion for our world.

Final thoughts in a nutshell: What’s your vision with regard to integrating about one million refugees here in Germany?

This can be a chance for Germans with low income as well. Refugees need jobs, so a lot of jobs need to be created. This is how we can integrate them in society. There is no lack of work here, either. There are many households that would be happy to hire a nanny, a caretaker or similar worker. And how many pro bono organisations could use someone for basic tasks?

Currently, the cost of labour for this kind of work is too high. But it’s not the income of the worker that makes this work unattractive. It’s the burden of the state.

Did you know that even a ‘Mindestlohner’ (someone who earns minimum wage) has to pay 38% of his meagre income to the public authorities? At the same time, a public servant who may earn about four times as much is only liable to pay 17% of his income to the state.

This is due to social security contributions. A ‘Mindestlohner’ pays e.g. €267 towards the German Federal Pension Fund – but he will never get a cent of that money back. He would need to earn a minimum of €2,500 before his pension exceeds the social welfare payments. A public servant doesn’t contribute a cent, but he will receive a state-funded pension that is so high that retired public servants now belong to the most affluent group in our society!

My solution: Keep the benefits of social welfare, but pay it through taxes. This way, labour will become cheaper, employees will earn more money, and low-skilled labour is bound to become more affordable as well. However, I doubt that we are going to see this happen under the current government in place.

A big THANK YOU goes out to Chris for taking the time. And how we wish more politicians were just like him!

A cosmopolitan butterfly that feels at home where people are friendly and coffee is strong. As a person with a wide range of interests and a low attention span, he succumbs to the charm of novelty all too readily. Literature, film, photography and politics on Mondays, playing dead and g(r)ooming dogs on Tuesdays. Hand him a beer and he’ll talk about football, tell him a lie and he’ll tell you two.

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