As featured in The Marketplace – 2016 – November/December

German firm rolls out the welcome mat for refugees

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35 NRSV).


Few topics are as highly charged these days as immigration. In the U.S. it comes up often in the presidential campaign. In Europe it sparks polarizing debate and even violence as countries deal with the reality of 10 million people displaced by the Syrian civil war.

Part of the solution: Company co-founders Philipp Horsch (left) and Michael Horsch (right). In the center, Michael’s wife Cornelia.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken flak for opening borders to a million refugees, not all of whom have readily found work.

Among her supporters you can count many businesspeople, notably the Horsch family from Schwandorf, Bavaria. This devout and eminently successful industrial family has thrown their support behind the refugee movement, at a corporate cost of well over a million Euros.

Horsch Machines, founded in 1984 and owned by Michael, Philipp and Traugott Horsch, is a leading manufacturer of agricultural tillage and seeding machines. The company employs 1,200 people in production facilities in Germany, Russia and the U.S. Some 80 percent of its production is sold throughout the European Union, Eastern Europe and former Soviet Union states. Its annual turnover is around 250 million Euros. While known globally for their machinery, family members note with pride that their origin is in farming, reflected in the slogan, “Farming with Passion.” They still run several farms, including a 3,000-hectare operation in Czech Republic.

The Horsch family has a tradition of offering sustainable livelihoods to migrants. This year it decided to raise the ante. The process began in spring after family members held earnest discussions about how they could be part of the solution to a growing national concern. Practicums were organized and behind-the-scenes efforts laid the base for a social and civil network.

Despite coming from vastly different backgrounds in five countries, the apprentices have integrated well into the German system.

In September the Horsch company began to train 10 refugees from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, the Ivory Coast and Albania.

“These are technical apprentices,” says Cornelia Horsch, a principal in the company and wife of co-owner Michael Horsch. “They do mechanics, repair machines, welding, working with steel and other materials.”

German apprenticeships are extensive, usually three or more years long, leading up to positions such as mechanical technicians or bookkeepers. It can be an exhaustive course of study covering all manner of theory and practice, and fully reflective of vaunted German technology.

The prospective apprentices, young people without parents, had come to Germany two years earlier and had been placed in youth camps in special classes where they learned German. They still are trained in mathematics, a pillar of the German system. “We don’t know what kind of schools they went to,” says Horsch. “Some of them have been on the road for years so they don’t have very good skills in math.”

The company worked with a local trade school to devise a special program for the newcomers that can eventually lead to additional training and full certification.
They also enlist qualified instructors to train the apprentices in intercultural skills, as well as to help them understand their host country’s work, cultural and moral values.

The technical apprentices work in a variety of areas: mechanics, machine repair, welding, and working with steel.

That, says Horsch, can be a two-way street. “We don’t understand their values either. So we have to train all our people who work with them.”
The company has also made lodging provisions.

“As apprentices they can’t live in refugee camps,” says Horsch. “So with the authorities we found two apartments where they live together. Social workers look after them.”

Why did the company go out on such an expensive limb?

“We talked about this in the family,” says Horsch. “We said we have a responsibility here in our own society. We think if we employ them and if we give them an education they can be integrated much better in society.

“The most important reason is a mere humanitarian one: our attitude towards every human being. We consider it our duty and our responsibility towards society to welcome and to integrate refugees. We are convinced that we should help people who are on the run and who are in trouble to become integrated and to learn the language as quickly as possible so that they are able to be independent and find work in Germany.”

Moreover, she muses, if conditions improve in their home country “they will have skills that will serve them well if they go back. We could even help them to go back and begin something at home. They can take their new know-how and values back to their country. They will know how western people, how Christian people think.”
There were practical business reasons as well. Demographically, a robust future depends on integrating people from afar, she says. In the Schwandorf region, where the company is based, unemployment is nil and growth depends on well-trained employees.

“With more than 80% of our production sold to 30 different countries outside of Germany, we really need people who speak other languages, who understand foreign markets and other mentalities,” Horsch says.

Exports are critical not only to the company but to the country at large, she adds. “If we, for whatever reasons, compromise this, our economy will suffer. So we have to develop a ‘culture of welcome’ not only in our company but also in our society.”

Horsch officials hope that if conditions improve in their home countries, apprentices will have picked up skills they can use if they go back and start anew.

The Horsch family grasped that training and hiring their own contingent of refugees was one thing, but they also wanted to help other companies do the same. They knew of companies willing to participate but who were unfamiliar with legal and organizational issues and obligations. Beyond basic willingness, companies needed a model, or template, to get started and understand the range of language and educational implications. The Horsch family wanted to provide it. Thus was born a holistic training concept that is called “Schwandorf’s cross-cultural training program.”

They couldn’t have pulled it off without the cooperative network of assistance, says Horsch.

These included the Vocational School Center, Foreigners’ Office, Youth Welfare Service, Employment Agency, the Haus des Guten Hirten (House of the Good Shepherd), the Kolping Educational Institute and the Institute of Co-operation Management from the University of Regensburg. Together this network provides assistance on the status of the refugees and issues related to unaccompanied minors who seek refuge; schooling; accommodation; internship requirements; and cross-cultural issues and courses. Every company that is willing to train refugees can access the program for help with apprenticeship and vocational schooling, says Horsch.

Was the new initiative a tough sell among employees?

Not really, says Horsch.

Her husband, Michael, and his brother Philipp met with the entire work force in the company’s various sites and explained why the family thought it important to employ and help the refugees.

Some employees were a bit apprehensive of the new responsibility but they grew to embrace the idea, says Cornelia Horsch.

Newcomers are nothing new for both the Horsch company and the country. “As far back as the 1990s we accepted boat people, people from Russia, Ukraine, China and Poland. When you talk with staff they realize, Oh yeah, that’s true.”

Horsch staff and their newest team of apprentices from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Ivory Coast and Albania.

Horsch says her country’s strong rights movement has come under some fire as extremists stoke fears of immigration. “We wanted to tell our workers we think it’s not good to go back to how it was in the 1930s and 40s.” As the country, like other regions of Europe and beyond, is caught up in the politics of fear, the Horsch family wanted to model corporate stability and demonstrate, as best they could, that the fears of the extreme right were unfounded.

In this they have the complete support of their Mennonite church community, Horsch says. “They are completely behind us.”

Other companies, including those owned by Mennonites, are following the Horsch family’s lead in taking apprentices or at least trainees and interns. Many generally support Merkel’s refugee policy, both from a humanitarian and Christian standpoint. Horsch points to a family friend whose company recently took two refugee employees.

Michael Horsch, meanwhile, is head of the local Rotary Club this year and together with the Lions Club has organized a charity roundtable for late November. “We want to invite businesspeople and explain why we are doing this and also obtain financing to hire a person who will look after refugees and encourage other companies to employ them,” he says.

Good shepherds in business

Showing moral and spiritual fibre fits the Horsch comfort zone. This was evident at the 2009 assembly of the Mennonite World Conference in Paraguay. Company co-founder Philipp Horsch turned heads at a MEDA seminar there when he promoted the hidden business benefit of “soft factors.”
In his speech he said a question his company faced was “How can we build trust among our co-workers, our customers and our suppliers?” His answer used a parable of Jesus (John 10:11-16): “I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know my Father and I lay down my life for the sheep….”

How many business leaders, he asked, saw themselves as a good shepherd?

Horsch said one of his greatest joys was to see longtime employees caring for their colleagues, being highly dedicated to their job, and keeping the interests of the business close to their hearts.

“If they notice colleagues having problems that are often not work-related, they try to help.”

At Horsch Machines, he said, everyone sought to be flexible and constructive, such as helping to adjust production plans to economic shifts.

“If we take responsibility for the people who surround us, if we build relationships, if we develop understanding for one another, be it for a co-worker, supplier or customer, then everyone will make an effort according to their abilities to find solutions for all challenges that come up.”

As in the parable, Horsch said, “People who follow us will trust us and give us their best. They will not quit at the first opportunity because the pay is higher somewhere else….”


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