PARIS — Hassan used to be a butcher in Eritrea and Ahmad worked in a snack bar in Syria. Both had to flee their country, and wound up as refugees in France. Now each has found a job in sectors that are short on workers. Hassan works in a supermarket, and Ahmad in a fast food restaurant.

According to France's Union of Hotel Trades and Industries (UMIH), there are between 150,000 and 180,000 positions currently vacant in the hotel and restaurant industry. This sector is far from being the only one facing a labor shortage: supermarkets, construction, factories and even in the digital sector are busy searching for new hires. "The problem for companies is much more about finding employees than conquering new markets," says Guillaume Richard, CEO of the household services company Oui Care.

Why not use refugees to help address such worker shortages? "The refugee population has an interesting set of skills. They are in high demand among our members," says Jessica Gonzalez-Gris, employment and training delegate at Syntec Federation, which groups trade unions from the digital, engineering and consulting sectors. "And beyond the strictly economic aspect, companies are aware of the stakes of integrating this population for society as a whole."

After submitting their application, asylum seekers must wait six months to obtain a temporary work permit and they have a job offer or employment contract. The Asylum and Immigration Act of September 2018 reduced the waiting period from nine to six months. "We need to further reduce this period and simplify the procedure," says Oui Care's Richard.

Behavior at work differs from country to country.

To access this pool of candidates, companies seek the help of NGOs. "Employers, even if they are convinced, feel like they are taking a significant risk," says a recent report by Lab'Ho, the Adecco Group's Observatory for Manpower and Organizations.

Integration of employees in the company is a prime concern. "The expected behavior at work differs from country to country," says Gonzalez-Gris. "For instance, in some cultures, it is very inappropriate for an employee to ask questions to his manager, even if he has not understood the instructions correctly." There are of course also language barriers, with 36% of refugees unable to properly speak French, according to DARES, the statistics office of France's Ministry of Labor. Since last March, the number of hours for French classes has been doubled under the Republican Integration Contract (CIR), the contract signed by non-EU foreigners admitted to stay in France.

Refugee working in a supermarket — Source: Forco via Twitter

The government also made professional support easier through HOPE (an acronym for housing, orientation and pathways to employment), a program to promote the integration of refugees "At the end of the program, 70% of trainees have a job or choose to further their training," says Elise Bord-Levère, head of social innovation at the National Agency for Vocational Training for Adults (AFPA), one of the governmental agencies behind the program. In 2018, 1,000 refugees received training, and another 3,000 are expected to participate in the program by 2020.

Some 150 companies took part in the initiative, including such multinationals as Starbucks and McDonald's. Supermarket chain Carrefour integrated some 90 refugees under professionalization contracts as store sales employees, and nearly a third of them stayed in the company on fixed-term or permanent contracts. Another supermarket chain, Auchan, also took on about 20 refugees as store employees. "For us, it was a leap into the unknown and we had to use a lot of pedagogy with our teams at first," says Patrick Peysson, head of school and work-study relations at Auchan. "After that, there was an enthusiastic welcome. Our managers seem to have really appreciated the refugees' adaptability, as well as their great modesty about what they went through."

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