Working Expectations for Expats in Germany

The words “German work ethic” are world-famous for a reason. Since the time of the nation’s Wirtschaftswunder [‘economic miracle’] in the 1950’s, Germany has projected the image of a nation that can rise from total devastation to exceptional prosperity merely through the unflagging determination of her citizenry. Though accomplishment also comes with an asterisk next to it that historians will already be aware of – namely, that this happened in what was then still the West of an ideologically partitioned Germany – it is still impressive. This, along with the still-strong reputation of German craftsmanship embedded in brands like Zeiss and Porsche, will give prospective workers in Germany fair warning as to the high standards and unequivocal results that employers expect.But is it Really That Rigorous?

However paradoxical it may seem in light of all this, Germany is an attractive option for those who want to achieve a higher living standard while working fewer hours: since about the mid-1980’s, U.S. workers have, on average, put in far more working hours than German workers, to say nothing of the nearly 500 extra hours of annual work that was done by Japanese citizens before the turn of the millennium. i

These shorter hours, along with holiday leaves that easily exceed those of the other nations listed, is partially a result of Germany’s so-called Soziale Marktwirschaft [social free market economy], which it believes is one of the best compromises in the world between the respective demands of labor unions and employers.

Some Possible Choices of Employment

The German expatriate job market, as it now stands, is not remotely as easy for expatriates to break into as the North American market would be, and there are no real labor shortages or areas of special demand outside of mechanical and electrical engineering. However, this should still not deter everyone, as there are fields, like supply chain management, that still find themselves playing catch-up with the non-European world’s perception of this business, and may thusly hire British or North American natives with a strong history of consultancy in this area. Meanwhile, select German tech firms, particularly those working with social media and software design, may have a higher rate of hiring expatriates from Anlgophone nations because of those industries’ intimate connection to that part of the world. One example of this would be the innovative music-based social media network Soundcloud.

With that in mind, certain jobs not seen to be “traditional,” or, at the very least, to be based upon receiving irregular wages, are well represented in Germany, specifically arts-related industries centered in Berlin. The capital city is perhaps one of the world’s friendliest towards the new generation of multi-media artists, musicians and live performers (particularly DJs), with a wide variety of artistic residency programs available and an equally generous amount of opportunities to engage in decently paying live performances. This said, one working in such a field should probably have a reputation preceding them before relocating, rather than attempting to build that reputation from scratch in a metropolis that already has a wealth of this stuff.

When to Expect a Job Offer (and What to Expect Afterwards)

A curious fact of German companies’ hiring is that they do not often make announcements for jobs that are slated to be open soon – it is not unusual for hiring to begin a full season after a position has been created. So, if noticing an attractive job opening in the country, it is best to use this lengthy interim period to make sure your paperwork and portfolio are in order, since the more detailed documentation and certification you can provide, the less likely the possibility of having to take an additional training course once your EU residency has been secured.

In the event that you do secure a job in Germany, it is important to remember that merit in the business environment is largely determined by the tasks you accomplish rather than the people you know, and even by how well you get along with co-workers. The approach of younger American entrepreneurs, who may hire full-time Facebook or LinkedIn coordinators to make plenty of “friends” for the company, may exist in Germany to some degree, but making the workplace double as a social club is absolutely not a priority that is placed ahead of maintaining a fully productive work environment.

Social Conventions In and Out of Work

German fastidiousness and attention to detail, although certainly not applicable to the country’s entire population, do not vanish into thin air when the workday ends, either (so take note if you are socializing with work-mates off the job.) Many foreign visitors have marveled at the German propensity for playing by the rules even when there is no practical reason to do so, with a famous case in point being German citizens’ respect for traffic signals. The author has personally encountered, in the dead of night, German pedestrians who would refuse to cross the street when not instructed to do so by the traffic light – this in spite of the fact that there was virtually no car traffic to contend with at that hour.

Very similar to Japan in this regard, unreflective adherence to German social conventions can be infuriating for foreigners (especially when they are verbally dismantled for running afoul of these rules.) It can, however, be a refreshing change of pace if one is leaving behind a part of the world that they feel to be too chaotic and poorly managed. Such new transplants will enjoy German concepts such as the mandated Ruhezeit [silent time], in which it is forbidden to engage in noise-making activities like mowing one’s lawn or cruising down the street while blasting the latest hit mix from your favorite Berlin-based expatriate DJ.

i. Richard Lord, CultureShock! Germany, p. 234. Marshall Cavendish Editions, Singapore, 2005.