Interconnectedness in all directions – experiences with network structures in supporting refugees in training

Gerburg Benneker, Susanne Heinzelmann, Julian Lenz

Refugees require extensive assistance in many areas of life, especially at the transition to training. Coordination of support provision is, however, a challenge. The results of the evaluation of the “Career Orientation for Immigrants (BOF)” Programme show how important a broad networking of project providers is in order to support immigrants in training. The article formulates recommendations in this regard.

Multifarious challenges require coordination of support

The representative IAB-BAMF-SOEP survey shows multiple problem situations which refugees need to overcome after entering Germany. In the 2017 survey, respondents expressed a particular need for assistance with regard to finances (92%), language learning (91%), medical provision (90%) and the search for accommodation (84%). Half of those surveyed also required support with orientation in (higher) education, with choosing a training place or with seeking continuing training provision (cf. Schührer 2021, p. 8). The BA-BIBB Forced Migration Survey also confirms that refugees need support in various areas of life. Almost 40 percent of training place applicants with experience of forced migration stated that they had needed more support in learning German and more information on the education and vocational education and training system. Further assistance was, however, also absent with regard to the search for accommodation (27.9%) and in dealing with government authorities (24.3%) (cf. Christ/Niemann 2020, p. 7). The 2021 BA-BIBB Applicant Survey makes it clear that, when progressing to training, refugees are more likely to receive support from persons and institutions outside the family than applicants who are not from a migrant background. Only 13.8 percent of training place applicants from a refugee background received support from their parents, siblings or another relative. The corresponding figure for those not from a migrant background was 36.8 percent. The former were more likely to be helped by careers advisors from the employment agency, by friends and acquaintances and by persons within the scope of career entry support services or mentoring programmes (cf. Kessler et al. 2022, pp. 7 ff.). Numerous support services for refugees were created in the wake of the high level of immigration in 2015/2016. However, such diversity of provision led to problems with governance and coordination, such as “duplicate areas of responsibility and long reference chains”. There was, for example, a lack of persons providing “cross-institutional” support. A further exacerbating factor is that the institutions pursue different “objectives and purposes with and for young refugees” (cf. Hilkert et al. 2020, pp. 85 ff.). The “high degree of intransparency of support services”, a lack of coordination and the absence of a joint strategy by regional stakeholders to foster integration into training also prove to be problematic (cf. Becker et al. 2019, pp. 108 ff.). Because the situation faced by refugees is complex in many respects, training provision needs to be cumulative in order to be effective (cf. Gag/Goebel/Goetz 2020).

Aim and structure of the “BOF Programme”

The “Career Orientation for Immigrants (BOF)” Programme, which was financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, ran from 2016 to 2023. Over a 26-week BOF course, help into training was provided to refugees and immigrants no longer subject to compulsory education and with special support needs. The elements of the programme are as follows.

  • Acquisition and selection of suitable participants by the project providers and appropriate assessment of suitability prior to the commencement of the BOF course
  • Detailed vocational orientation and preparation for up to three training occupations via vehicles such as practical experience in apprentice workshops/practical rooms and a supported company-based phase
  • Occupationally related and integrated specialist and language teaching
  • Individual socio-pedagogical support over the whole of the period including placement into training or introductory training and further support provision

Further information is available at www.bofplus.de

Networking forms a framework for support under BOF

The concept behind the “Career Orientation for Immigrants (BOF)” Programme (cf. Information box above), which ran from 2016 to the end of 2023, stipulates that a broadly based network should be in place across all phases of implementation (cf. Heinzelmann et al. 2023, p. 14). Such a network is relevant in terms of being able to reach the target group and offer it comprehensive support and in respect of acquiring companies to provide training and thus making progression to training easier. BOF is implemented nationally by around 100 project providers (occupation-specific guilds, district craft trade associations and chambers of crafts and trades), by further providers from regional trade and industry, and by independent training providers. More than a thousand participants receive support each year. A total of 6,545 refugees/immigrants took part in BOF between 2016 and the end of 2022. Over a quarter of those who fully completed BOF between 2016 and 2022 subsequently progressed directly to a training contract. A further 15 percent entered introductory training (EQ). Other destinations particularly include transition to a language course, to other measures or straight to employment. The monitoring data shows that around ten percent are indicated as being unemployed following participation in BOF (cf. Heinzelmann et al. 2023, p. 67). On the basis of the evaluation of the BOF Programme commissioned by BMBF (cf. Information box), experiences and relevant recommendations regarding cooperation with network partners will be set out below.

Evaluation of the BOF Programme

Aim of the evaluation and approach

  • Analysis and assessment of target achievement, efficacy and cost effectiveness for the period from 2016 to 2022
  • Theory-based evaluation: empirical investigation of the basic assumptions regarding the functionality of BOF

Methodological implementation

  • Evaluation of the data of all previous participants
  • Written online survey of project staff of the provider (project managers/networking staff, specialist and language teachers, trainers and support staff). A total of 93 providers were contacted (56 institutions currently implementing BOF and 37 who did so previously). A total of 131 project staff from 59 providers took part. The provider-related response rate was 63 percent.
  • Written online survey of current and former participants in plain language (n = 115 from a total of 23 providers)
  • More detailed studies at five locations via qualitative group interviews and telephone interviews with representatives from the companies involved in the project

The basis for the presentation of the results is a dataset (n = 51) which encompasses the responses of the project managers of the providers. Information provided by the project staff was reflected in the analysis of this.

Network partners open up access pathways to the target group

Network partners play a major role in reaching the appropriate target group for BOF (cf. Heinzelmann et al. 2023, p. 28). Firstly, they open the door that enables the provider staff themselves to engage in conversation with potential participants, for example when project workers present the BOF courses at refugee accommodation facilities. Secondly, the network partners exercise an important multiplier function when they pass on information about BOF to the target group and advise on participation. For the providers, network partners represent the most important point of access to the target group by far (96% of providers surveyed make use of this access route). Contacting participants via network partners, particularly personally, proves to be particularly successful.

The most important network partners for addressing the target group are job centres, local government institutions, the employment agencies, vocational schools, and volunteer-run initiatives and associations. There is a variance between the providers as to which stakeholders are involved specifically and in respect of how cooperation is structured. This depends on the contacts of the provider institutions, on personal networking between project staff, and on general regional and structural conditions (e.g. existing network structures at a local level for refugees or new immigrants and the type of provider). The providers believe that collaboration with vocational and further education and training schools and with job centres are a particularly successful way of addressing the target group (cf. Figure). Obstacles to cooperation are, however, also revealed with regard to implementation. In the detailed qualitative studies, the reasons for these are seen to relate to individual instances of readiness to cooperate, to time bottlenecks, and to staff turnover at the network partners.

The composition of the participants in the BOF Programme varies (e.g. with regard to duration of stay, language knowledge or support needs) according to the network structure. Participants who find their way into the BOF Programme via a job centre already tend to have better language knowledge that refugees who are addressed via accommodation facilities.

As the project staff emphasise in the detailed studies, the participants’ prior learning, prior experiences and individual problem situations exert an effect on developments during a BOF course. Their assessment is that cooperation and harmonisation with network partners before the beginning of the course can help clarify issues regarding the matching of the BOF provision for potential participants. This is because the partners have had prior contact with the refugees and new migrants and are familiar with their histories and backgrounds.

Figure: Addressing the target group via the network partners – evaluations of success

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Company networks strengthen implementation and chances of transition

Robust company networks are crucial to the providers for the execution of the BOF courses (company phase) and in particular as a bridge to a training relationship. As providers, professional organisations such as guilds, chambers and district craft trade associations already have close links to their member companies via their structures. However, further companies or different occupational fields must be acquired in order to be able to place participants in suitable provision which matches their needs, interests and prior learning. The majority of providers believes that personal contacts and addressing new companies directly are both relevant in this regard. Other aims are for companies to be made adequately aware of the prior learning and support requirements of the target group and for them to be prepared to make training places available to the target group. In overall terms, including against the background of the skilled worker shortage, readiness to cooperate on the part of the companies is shown to be high. As well as benefiting from having persons interested in training placed with them, statements made in the company interviews and detailed studies indicate that networking with providers during the BOF period also offers an advantage.

Even in the event of a successful direct transition to training or to introductory training after the completion of the BOF Programme, many challenges remain for the participants (e.g. individual problem situations, lack of language knowledge, and lack of basic school knowledge at vocational school). For this reason, further support is often required in order for BOF participants to successfully continue their route into training and for training to be completed. Although various further support structures exist (e.g. regulatory instruments of the Federal Employment Agency, federal state-specific training support programmes), transition to such structures is not always successful. For this reason, even former participants approach the providers with different support requests after the BOF course. In this context too, a trusting and well organised network acts as the main anchor for uninterrupted and targeted follow-up support.

Conclusion and outlook

Cooperation between relevant stakeholders in the areas of training/VET and migration/refugee assistance is key to the success of the BOF Programme. From the perspective of the evaluation, successful and broadly based implementation thus requires fundamental (minimum) standards on cooperation in order to reduce dependencies of individual persons and ensure sustainable networking. With regard to the establishment and expansion of network structures in a programme, the initial focus needs to be on raising awareness of the regulatory structure amongst the relevant institutions across the board (in particular amongst job centres, employment agencies and aliens departments at a local level). According to the recommendation of the evaluation, greater uniformity of the arrangement of the networks can be ensured by guides or by cooperation agreements on acquisition, allocation and support of participants. Networking should also be afforded greater support in the overarching structures of the relevant institutions at state level. The focus should be much more on the creation of general conditions which drive forward targeted networking at a local level rather than on formal cooperation declarations.

The matching of a support measure to the initial and requirements situation of the refugees and new migrants is a factor which is crucial to success. However, even if coordination within a network is good, it is not always possible to clarify the issue of matching beforehand. Individual problem situations and occupationally related preferences are mostly only revealed during the BOF course. One possible approach is offered by orientation phases agreed within the network and which take place upstream to the actual commencement of the course (including initial low-threshold activities and detailed discussions on expectations and opportunities). In the case of persons for whom a BOF course or direct progression to training after completion of the measure does not (yet) represent an option, these may help with placement in other suitable provision or support structures within the network. A similar situation applies in the event of further support needs following (successful) participation. Joint planning between participants, specialist support staff at the provider and further support bodies is of particular relevance in order for appropriate follow-up support to proceed seamlessly. Simple reference consultations or information on possible points of contact are not usually sufficient. Especially in light of the multiple problem situations of the target group and given the scepticism that exists vis-à-vis unknown administrative structures (as a result of forced migration), it is important for trusted persons to refer participants on to a reliable further point of contact.

These recommendations relating to the evaluation of network formation were addressed in the follow-up programme “Career Orientation for Refugees and Migrants (BOFplus)”. Further support for refugees and migrants along the pathway to a vocational qualification via BOFplus courses thus remains possible on the basis of the funding guidelines of 01.02.2024 (at www.bofplus.de). 


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(All links: status 22/05/2024)

Gerburg Benneker
Academic researcher at BIBB

Susanne Heinzelmann
Head of Education and Employment at Prognos AG, Berlin

Julian Lenz
Project Manager Education and Employment at Prognos AG, Berlin

Translation from the German original (published in BWP 2/2024): Martin Kelsey, GlobalSprachTeam, Berlin