There are many days I think to myself, “Oh my God, why did I leave my good job and move to a country where I can’t find a job to save my life?!” How many of you have thought the same? In 2009, I moved to Frankfurt from London for personal reasons (personal disclosure: I am American, now married to a German). I worked in finance and thought, it should be a snap to get a job in the banking capital of Germany! But would I need to speak German? If I had a euro for every time someone said to me, “Frankfurt is soooo international! There are so many global companies that will surely be OK if you don’t speak German. They all speak English!” These well-meaning people have no idea how tough it is to get a job here if you are a foreigner and don’t speak fluent German.
First of all, I have heard there is an unspoken prejudice against non-Germans where firms will throw out one CV after another because the applicant’s name betrays the fact that the person is a foreigner. Turkish, Polish, Asian… none of us have a shot! Yes, I admit this is completely unproven, but I know from first hand experience that, only when I assumed my German husband’s last name did I start getting responses back about my CV. Same CV, similar companies, similar types of jobs. And no, I did not translate my CV into German. Coincidence? Unfortunately, I think not.
Secondly, what I have learned about German companies, even American companies here in Germany, is that yes, they speak English, but they also speak German at work and they expect you to be fluent in both. Even though I would bet most companies have at least one non-German speaking expat working at every office here in Germany, the Germans that run the regional offices of these global companies are very traditional. They want their staff to be, at the very least, bilingual. Third and fourth languages preferred. How can one compete with that?!
So many of you, like me, have attempted to learn German. We all know how difficult it is. It’s easy to get to a point where you can get around on your own, have a simple conversation, watch TV, but have any of you ever had an interview in German? I have had a few telephone interviews and believe me, it’s the most grueling process I’ve been through in a long time. To give you some background, I have worked for over 13 years doing various kinds of project-based work for primarily financial services firms. I have an MBA and most recently, I worked at a large investment bank on Wall Street and in London. I am, by no means, a shrinking violet! But speaking German makes me feel like an awkward teenage girl. I mean, sure, not with my husband or random strangers or at the restaurant/Rewe, but yes, when I am in a group of Germans at dinner and definitely when some HR person is calling me to do a pre-screen. I become extremely insecure, shy, just a completely different person. I know there are so many people out there in a similar situation. You feel like you can’t express your personality or your thoughts, you give one-word responses, or say “Wie, bitte?” all the time like your hard-of-hearing Grandma. You feel perpetually frustrated and spent countless hours wondering why German is not clicking like Spanish did when you learned it in high school. You start to feel really stupid all the time.
Enough of the pity party. As we like to say back home, “It is, what it is!” I have a two prong approach to my job search. First, I am working with a personal instructor learning Business Deutsch, practicing interviewing, and trying my hardest to improve my conversational skills. This also means no more English with the husband – it’s 100% Deutsch, 24 Stunden pro Tag! Second, I am sending out my American-style CV in English and applying for job postings, mostly in English. I have applied for job postings in German and I submit my cover letter and CV in English. It hasn’t been hugely successful applying in English, but sometimes they call anyway. I could have had my husband translate my CV and cover letters, but I do not want to give them the impression that I am functioning at an advanced level. Also, when they see a German CV, known as a Lebenslauf, they will expect to see an education that fits into that template (my American education does not) as well as Arbeitszeugnisse, which are recommendations from former employers that Germans are requested to provide with their job applications (which are non-existent in America, at least in my field).
I don’t want to go into all the specifics, but I’m sure you are all aware of the differences between the German and the American education systems (that deserves its own entire blog post!). The most important thing to remember is that in the German system, for the most part, there is a pre-defined, very specific educational and training path for each career. Whether you want to be in banking, a baker, or an engineer at Mercedes Benz, there is a pre-determined path that starts very early on. It is nothing like the US where you could go to school and study history, work at a bakery part-time, and then, after graduation, get a job in finance. So what this means is that when employers examine your background, it might be hard for them to understand why you went to school for one thing and then ended up doing something unrelated. Many headhunters or employers ask you to explain your background starting from high school!
Back to my job search – I try to apply to only truly global firms, but it’s definitely tricky. For instance, I know that Deutsche Bahn is currently recruiting like crazy, but I know that there’s little chance that they speak English with each other in the office. I know that an American consulting firm, like PricewaterhouseCoopers (one of my former employers), is a really global firm, but they probably only service German clients. And therein lies the problem again – I don’t speak fluent Deutsch yet!
If there is anything that I can suggest to my fellow expats it’s this: Learn German. Really learn it and become fluent. Especially if you are here for the foreseeable future. Here are the specific things I suggest you do or stop doing (I know you are doing it, don’t deny it!):
- Stop only speaking English with your spouse, ask him/her to speak only in German.
- For Americans, stop watching all that American TV online!
- Stop only reading your home country’s newspapers and websites.
- Stop only speaking English with your home country & German friends (I don’t care that they can speak fluent English and it’s easier for all to speak in English!)
- Make some real German friends, who will commit to only talking to you in German.
- Write emails to your friends and spouse in German – writing is really important to the job search too!
- Don’t give up!
The last point is particularly important to me because I can absolutely relate to all of you who have given up or want to give up. Finding a job with these challenges is really hard. It can make you question yourself and it can seem really unfair at times. And for some of you like me, who don’t want to take a job teaching English or be an Au Pair, you are stubbornly going to keep looking until it kills you. I am here with you, meine Freunde und Freundinnen, and I will update you on my progress periodically and share with you my findings and solutions. I hope that we can help each other. Some of my upcoming blogs are where to look for job postings, how to network, how the German recruitment process differs from the American way, German women’s careers…to name a few. I hope that you will stay tuned. But for now, I wish you all, Viel Glück!