Immigration for the purpose of training – what does the route into German vocational education and training from third countries look like?

Alexander Studthoff

The Skilled Immigration Act (FEG) has been in force since March 2020 and extends opportunities for immigration by international skilled workers. The possibilities of coming to Germany to pursue vocational education and training have also been expanded. This article now considers how legal provisions are being implemented: Which challenges do trainees and trainers encounter, and how can things be optimised further?

Vocational education and training within the context of the Skilled Immigration Act

The Skilled Immigration Act opens up access pathways for persons from third countries wishing to complete training in Germany. This approach has been in place for a somewhat longer period with regard to academic qualifications. Germany was the fourth most popular country for foreign students in 2016.1 Obtaining an education or training qualification in Germany makes it easier to enter the labour market. Recognition of the qualifications is not necessary, and migrants who would like to work in Germany are already familiar with the German language and with the country’s everyday culture. Making this option available to skilled workers with vocational training qualification had already formed part of the Skilled Worker Strategy of the previous Federal Government (cf. BMWI 2019, p. 6). The current Federal Government is also seeking to “make it easier for people from other countries [...] to train in our country.”2 This is, however, an area in which action is needed. Between 2016 and 2019, the number of residence permits issued for the purpose of higher education and preparation for higher education study was around ten times higher than the number granted for the purpose of vocational education and training (cf. BAMF 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019).

Legal framework for immigration

The Skilled Immigration Act governs the immigration to Germany of people who require a residence permit for work or training. It applies to most foreigners outside the European Union or the European Economic Area, so-called third country nationals. The Skilled Immigration Act tidies up a large number of laws and ordinances, in particular the German Residence Act and the various residence permits issued under its auspices. The Skilled Immigration Act has pooled provisions relating to VET that were previously scattered. Amendments to the Act for Promotion of the Employment of Foreigners supplement the Skilled Immigration Act by providing funding for vocational education and training and for occupation-related language training.

Residence for the purpose of vocational education and training – § 16 a of the German Residence Act (AufenthG) facilitates residence in Germany for the entire duration of the vocational education and training. A training contract is required in order to obtain a residence permit. The Federal Employment Agency must approve the contract and will undertake a labour-market test. Evidence of knowledge of German at level B1 is normally necessary unless the company providing training confirms that the person’s German language skills are sufficient or unless the intention is to attend a language course in Germany prior to commencement of the training. During the vocational education and training, trainees are allowed to perform paid employment for ten hours a week and are also entitled to receive a vocational education and training subsidy. Demonstration that living costs are covered in the amount of the standard rate set out in the Federal Education and Training Assistance Act (BAföG) is a mandatory prerequisite. The period of residence may also encompass the duration of a language course if a training contract and evidence of admission to such a language course are in place.

Residence for the purpose of seeking a training place – § 17 Paragraph 1 of the German Residence Act allows a maximum stay of six months in order to seek a training place. This makes it easier to establish contact with SMEs, which often do not have any opportunity to approach trainees abroad. The prerequisites for the residence permit are, however, extensive. Applications may only be submitted by persons under the age of 25 who have achieved a specific school leaving qualification.3 Further requirements are knowledge of German at level B2 and evidence that living costs are covered in the amount of the standard rate set out in BAföG for the whole of the period of residence. Applicants must be able to provide credible justification of interest in the training occupation to which they aspire. There is thus no major difference to the residence prerequisites for the purpose of seeking a higher education study place (cf. Marx 2019, p. 30).

Immigration for training – a seven-stage process

Figure: Immigration for training – a seven-stage process Foto-Download (Bild, 359 KB)

The process of immigration for training can be divided into seven main stages (see Figure) and involves various stakeholders. Alongside the trainees and companies, these mainly comprise the German missions abroad and their visa offices, educational establishments abroad (e.g. the Goethe Institute) and placement services such as those offered by the Federal Employment Agency’s Central Foreign and Professional Placement Office (ZAV). There are also further stakeholders in Germany which advise and assist companies and trainees.

1. Vocational orientation – successful VET in Germany requires intensive vocational orientation whilst still abroad. Information services able to convey an adequate picture of dual training are thin on the ground in other countries. Nevertheless, this is an area in which a precise explanation of prospects of success and of career choice perspectives is needed. Personal vocational guidance is currently provided by the ZAV, at least to a limited extent, also to interested parties abroad.

2. German language training – Unlike the numerous English language courses of higher education study that exist, dual vocational education and training is delivered solely in German. A substantial knowledge of German is thus indispensable. Lack of German language skills may jeopardise training, especially at vocational school. For this reason, seeking out occupation-related language training whilst still abroad is a sensible way of preparing for training in the best possible way. Relevant provision abroad is, however, very patchy.

3. Recognition of school qualifications – companies providing training usually stipulate certain school levels for the training contract. This may make it necessary to obtain recognition for school qualifications via certificate recognition bodies in Germany. In some federal states, relevant applications are only accepted from persons whose place of residence is in Germany. This makes it difficult to obtain recognition from abroad. Identifying the certificate recognition body responsible is also problematic.

4. Seeking a training place – it is necessary to find a company providing training with which the training contract is concluded. Looking for training places from abroad is a major challenge, especially with regard to direct contact between companies and potential trainees. Internships are, however, - aside from the residence for the purpose of seeking a training place (see above) -  not a viable option. Once the company and future trainees come together, the training contract needs to be approved by the Federal Employment Agency.

5. Visa application – a visa application can be submitted to a German mission abroad once the training contract is in place. Applicants need to provide evidence of knowledge of German and demonstrate that living costs can be covered. They are also often required to set out their motivation for wishing to embark on their preferred training programme. Missing documents may cause delays and postpone entry to the country. This can endanger the punctual beginning of training.

6. Commencement of training – trainees usually start a new stage of life when they arrive in Germany. It is essential for trainees to receive support, particularly in the case of companies in rural locations. As well as facing up to the requirements of the training, they will also need to find their bearings in everyday life. This involves establishing social contacts as well as dealing with administrative authorities (foreigners authority, residents registration office).

7. Training support – experience has shown that challenges emerge during training in terms of coping with the workload at the company providing training and at the vocational school. The trainees frequently need close-knit support. Smaller and medium-sized companies in particular should be notified of existing support provision (e.g. assisted training, in-training support or voluntary coaching) and should be able to avail themselves of these services in order to address the concerns of the trainees.

Proposals for optimisation

Effective cooperation on the part of all stakeholders is needed if the process outlined is to succeed. This collaboration can be structured on the basis of the following suggestions.

Sharing experiences – MobiPro-EU is a project for the acquisition of foreign trainees from EU states which has now been concluded. The results of the evaluation4 should be taken into account in future. These include the necessity of providing support to trainees whilst they are still in their country of origin, adequate language training and social integration of the trainees in Germany. Current projects aimed at recruiting trainees from third countries5 should share their experiences with interested parties. Networking formats will be needed in order to bring the relevant stakeholders together in certain countries. These could, for example, be organised abroad by the respective diplomatic mission or by a German Chamber of Commerce Abroad.

Focusing on countries of strategic relevance – the recommendation is for new projects to concentrate on countries which are already targets for the acquisition of skilled workers (according to BMWI 2019, p. 10, these include i.a. Mexico, Brazil, India and Vietnam). Countries which are involved with German development cooperation and where there is a high degree of migration pressure are a further possible option, especially in sub-Saharan Africa (cf. SVR 2020, pp. 114 ff.).

Expanding information and guidance provision abroad – information services abroad on vocational education and training in Germany need to undergo further development. As well as offering specific information, one possible way forward would be to advertise German VET more distinctly as a brand and to extend other existing provision such as the German Office for International Cooperation in Vocational Education and Training (GOVET). A “support architecture featuring central placement authorities and contact partners” will also serve as an important lever for immigration (SVR Research Unit 2019, p. 42). Guidance agencies for professional recognition have been expanded within the scope of the Skilled Immigration Act, whilst such an infrastructure has already existed in the university sector for some considerable time in the shape of bodies such as the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and international offices at academic institutions. There should be an emphasis on expanding relevant provision for the guidance, support and placement of trainees with the involvement of German stakeholders abroad (e.g. Goethe Institutes, German Chambers of Commerce Abroad , GIZ migration advice centres) and in Germany (chambers, education and training providers) alongside the ZAV. Good models of specific information services already exist in the domain of professional recognition. The Recognition Portal (www.recognition-in-germany.de) and other types of information provision (e.g. country-specific training offers) are particular cases in point. A further recommendation would be to address certain target groups such as those leaving schools where particular importance is attached to German language (cf. BA 2019, p. 16).

Expanding guidance and support in Germany – support provision has been developed for trainees from a migrant background over recent years, and this could also be used in immigration for the purpose of training. Examples in this regard include the “Coordination Office for Training in Foreign-Owned Companies (KAUSA)” and the “Career Orientation for Immigrants” programme (BOF). BOF offers a vocational orientation scheme which extends over a maximum period of 26 weeks and uses vehicles such as internships and language measures to provide an introduction to training occupations. This format has the potential to allow more efficient use of residence for the purpose of seeking a training place. The “ZuSA” project began in 2021 and is being run by the Saxony-Anhalt North KAUSA Service Agency. It is the first scheme of its kind to provide companies in Germany and (potential) trainees from abroad with guidance on the specific challenges of immigration. Opportunities for the adaptation and transfer of this provision should be explored.

Expanding funding opportunities – financing is an obstacle within the process. Living costs in Germany and costs incurred for preparation abroad both need to be met. Companies also have to raise resources, something which can be difficult for small and medium-sized enterprises in particular. In this case, special consideration could be given to funding and financing instruments, e.g. credits along the lines of other SME funding programmes (cf. SVR Research Unit 2019, p. 42).

Investments in new projects are necessary

Immigration for the purpose of training has many inherent challenges. Interested trainees from third countries and companies in Germany have received too little in the way of support thus far. Wido Geis-Thöne (German Economic Institute) therefore arrives at the following conclusion: “Germany is virtually still at square one with regard to immigration for the purpose of vocational education and training6.” A national support system will be needed in order for immigration to succeed in the long term. This will require cooperation from all parties and the political will to adapt legal provisions.7 Such a support system is possible if there is recognition and further development of the potentials in existing structures both in Germany and abroad. The requisite financial funding should be put in place to initiate projects which may serve as a road map and make this route into German training easier accessible in future.


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(All links: status 23/02/2022)

Alexander Studthoff
Academic researcher at BIBB 

Translation from the German original (published in BWP 1/2022): Martin Kelsey, GlobalSprachTeam, Berlin