Connect and Organize

The start-up industry needs its own lobby to articulate its interests in the political arena.

The relationship between old and new actors inside the lobby industry isn’t the best – at least that’s what you hear in start-up circles in Berlin. So what: let’s form our own interest group, specifically tailored to meet the interests of start-up businesses. We have everything we need: brains and the knowledge to conceptualize and realize projects efficiently.

What would the lobby’s tasks be? Here’s an example: if all goes well, start-up businesses grow quickly and need to hire more employees. Depending on the business model, they might come from abroad. But if the talent pool includes nationals from non-EU states, a bureaucratic nightmare ensues. Interested job applicants must first apply for a work visa in the German embassy in their respective home countries. The embassy then checks whether all required information has been provided, and the application is forwarded to Germany, where a different government agency examines the bona fide credentials of the application, i.e. whether the applicant meets all formal requirements. Depending on the speed of the embassy, these steps can take anywhere from two to six weeks. No email communication is involved as all materials are physically shipped around the world. The only thing missing is a horse-drawn carriage.

If all formal requirements have been met, the journey continues. The future employer must provide a work contract that includes a clause which stipulates that employment remains contingent on the successful completion of the visa application process. Once the contract has been attached to the application, the government runs a so-called “precedence test” to ensure that the foreign applicant isn’t taking a job that could be given to a German or EU native within a certain radius. A central agency, the “Central Foreign and Qualification Placement Agency,” checks whether the job requirements of the prospective employer fit someone who is not a foreign national.

Sometimes, the agency comes across details like a programming language that it hasn’t heard of before. Or it encounters English job titles that it can’t quite classify – and resorts to a dictionary to translate the title or (if it cannot be found in the dictionary) to deduce its meaning from similar-sounding jobs. It’s not surprising and nor uncharitable to say that the agency’s interpretation of a particular job does not always match the employer’s list of requirements. Businesses have taken to listing every detail of a job to avoid complications in the bureaucratic process as much as possible.

But, as usual, time is money. Let’s look at a hypothetical applicant who has studied at Harvard. He’s the only good match for a job in middle or higher management at a Berlin-based booming and growing start-up business. He has a unique and proven talent in the IT sector and other areas of expertise that are relevant to the company’s business. He is still paying off student debt. If the bureaucratic process takes three months or more, that’s at least 15,000 euros in income that are lost to the prospective employee. For someone who is paying back loans on a monthly basis, the difference matters dearly. One cannot fault the applicant if he choses to move elsewhere and start drawing a salary immediately (and where, maybe, the atmosphere is a bit more welcoming than at a German immigration agency).

Traditional economic actors have a formal and substantive edge in this process. An international corporation can hire in Brazil and send its employees to Germany. An engineer remains an engineer despite the language difference. The German agency will be able to translate his job title and understand the job requirements immediately – after all, this is what they have been dealing with for years.

Small businesses, too, have their chamber of commerce and ways to attract employees from abroad. But insiders in Berlin say that their lobby organization isn’t particularly interested in taking up the cause of start-up businesses. The skepticism might be mutual: many new internet companies aren’t particularly keen on replicating traditional company structures either. But a start-up lobby would surely build relationships with existing chambers of commerce. We, too, can learn something from established organizations.

Together, we can apply the pressure that is necessary to facilitate the visa process of highly qualified foreign job applicants. The processes are sound, but they take too long. A first step: e-mail instead of stagecoaches.

Newconomy is the new weekly column for the start-up industry. It focuses on the intersection of classical and new economies and of politics and entrepreneurialism. Newconomy is sponsored by Factory, the new start-up hub in Berlin.

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