Does recognition of foreign professional and vocational qualifications also improve labour market opportunities in non-regulated occupations?

Stefan Ekert, Ricarda Knöller, Kathrin Raven

Formal evidence of educational and vocational qualifications are crucial if skills and competencies are to be usable on the German labour market. It is therefore important for persons who have acquired their certificate abroad to obtain formal recognition of such qualifications in order to enhance their chances on the labour market and therefore also improve their occupational situation. The Federal Recognition Act has served as the framework for this process since April 2012 by according anyone in possession of a foreign qualification the right to a recognition procedure. This article examines the issue of the extent to which recognition of a foreign professional or vocational qualification in a non-regulated area actually improves opportunities for labour supply on the German market and also illustrates the limits which apply. The investigation is based on the results of the evaluation of the Recognition Act.

What does the recognition procedure record and certify?

The Berufsqualifikationsfeststellungsgesetz (BQFG) [Law to improve the assessment and recognition of professional and vocational education and training qualifications acquired abroad] – referred to in abbreviated form as the Federal Recognition Act – entered into force on 1 April 2012 and only covers professions and occupations that are governed by federal law. It therefore applies to around 600 professions and occupations. These include 84 regulated professions (e.g. doctor) and approximately 510 non-regulated occupations. The dual training occupations, which number around 330, and about 180 advanced training qualifications (cf. BMBF 2014, p. 21) are also encompassed. The primary focus of the recognition procedure is to record formal qualifications. The process initially investigates whether equivalence with a German reference occupation can be ascertained on the basis of documentation. If substantial differences are identified, the second stage of the process involves scrutinising further documents such as work references which map occupationally-related employability skills acquired via a non-formal or informal route. In the case of absent or incomplete documentation, competence assessment processes, or so-called “skills analyses” (cf. § 14 BQFG and § 50 HwO1)can also be deployed in certain occupations in order to demonstrate the requisite occupational competence.

The outcome of the recognition procedure is a notice certifying full, partial or no equivalence of the foreign qualification with a German reference occupation. However, even if full equivalence is granted, this does not constitute formal recognition of the German vocational qualification in the same way as via an external examination (pursuant to § 45 Section 2 BBiG1 § 37 Section 2 HwO). Certification of full equivalence accords equal legal status with persons in possession of a corresponding German professional or vocational qualification. A notice attesting full equivalence is necessary for those aspiring to exercise an occupational activity in which unrestricted access is governed by relevant legal and administrative stipulations (so-called regulated professions). By way of contrast, access to the labour market in non-regulated occupations is also available to those not in possession of a notice of equivalence. For these occupations in particular, therefore, the issue that arises is whether a notice certifying full (or partial) equivalence will actually improve opportunities on the labour market at all. The results of the external evaluation of the Federal Recognition Act can be used to provide an answer to this question.

Design and methodological approach of the evaluation study

The Federal Recognition Act stipulates that its application and effects should be investigated four years after the law has entered into force (§ 18 BQFG). In order to fulfil this statutory remit and acting on behalf of the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF) [Federal Ministry of Education and Research], BIBB commissioned INTERVAL GmbH and the Institut für Wirtschaft, Arbeit und Kultur (IWAK) [Institute for Business, Work and Culture] to conduct an external evaluation. BIBB also provided technical support for the investigation. The evaluation has produced the first findings with regard to the contribution that can be made by the Recognition Act in respect of the extent and quality of labour market integration (cf. the detailed final report by EKERT et al. 2017). It uses several sources and types of data which supplement one another reciprocally. One central and particularly current database is provided by a standardised survey of successful applicants. These include persons who have acquired recognition in both a regulated profession and in a non-regulated occupation. The data delivered by this questionnaire has been separately evaluated for this article.

The standardised survey was conducted online with the option of a telephone interview. It was carried out in the summer of 2016 and was offered in six languages. Access to the target group for the survey took place via a referral procedure organised by the competent bodies. 812 persons participated in the questionnaire, 174 of whom had achieved recognition in a non-regulated occupation. The data obtained was checked for representativity and subsequently weighted in accordance with the characteristics of occupation and origin. In structural terms, the weighted sample equates to the statistical population of persons who received a notice of full or partial equivalence of their vocational qualification by the end of 2015 and is representative of this group.

The results presented below (for characterisation of the group cf. Table 1) are based on the weighted data.

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Table 1: Characterisation of applicants in non-regulated occupations
n = 174

Improvement of labour market opportunities in non-regulated occupations?

The survey of former applicants focused on questions relating to their occupational development, their motivation for making an application and their personal assessment of the recognition procedure and its benefits. In order to be able to assess the development of the labour market situation of respondents who have achieved recognition in the non-regulated sector, various indicators of occupational status will be subjected to closer scrutiny below.

At the time when their application was submitted, 58.8 per cent of respondents were in employment and 31 per cent were unemployed. The remaining 10.2 per cent stated that they were in initial or advanced training or a similar measure or else provided no response.

Of the respondents in employment, a majority was in full-time work (70 % of persons in employment or 41.2 % of all respondents). 30 per cent were employed on a part-time basis or held jobs involving only a small number of hours of work each month.

The contracts of employment of respondents at the time when the application was made can be characterised as follows:

  • 25.4 per cent had a fixed-term contract of employment, and 66.9 per cent were employed on a permanent basis (2.6 % no information available).
  • 48.2 per cent were working in the occupation in which they had trained, and 48.3 per cent were working in another occupation (3.5 % no information available).
  • 19.8 per cent were in temporary or agency employment.
  • Average gross monthly remuneration at the time when the application was made was Euro 1,740.

A multiple-choice question was included in order to gain some information as to the reasons why respondents had sought recognition. Of all the possible options provided, the most common response selected by some distance was the hope that recognition would improve occupational possibilities and opportunities (46.6 %). Only 14.9 per cent of respondents had firm prospects of a specific job. A more common reason stated was the expectation that recognition would bring access to certain continuing training occupations such as the chance of entering master craftsman training (21.4 %). Another option selected relatively frequently was that the impetus to submit an application for recognition had originated from a third party such as an employment agency or job centre (11.6 %) or from the respondent’s employer or line manager (9.7 %).

In the summer of 2016, former applicants who had received a notice certifying full or partial equivalence between summer 2012 and spring 2016 were surveyed on various quantitative and qualitative characteristics of their current occupational status. The point in time at which respondents received their notice is unknown since only time of submission of application was surveyed (cf. Table 2). However, the analysis of official statistics carried out tells us that a decision is made on over 80 per cent of all applications within four months.

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Table 2: Proportion of respondents by time of submission of application
n = 123

Information on a person’s occupational situation in the summer of 2016 enabled an assessment to be undertaken of the changes that have taken place compared to the time when the application was submitted. Positive developments were revealed from both a quantitative and qualitative point of view.

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Figure: Characteristics of labour market integration at the time of survey (after recognition) and change compared to time at which application was made (in percentage points)

n = 131 weighted
* Figures do not add up to 100 % because of persons completing training, retraining, a course of higher education study or a Voluntary Social Year/Voluntary Ecological Year.

In summer 2016, many more of the former applicants were in work compared to the time when the application was made. The proportion of unemployed persons virtually halved during this period (cf. Figure). A higher proportion of persons in full-time work shows that the time scope of employment also increased in overall Terms.

From the qualitative point of view, the proportion of those working in the occupation in which they had trained rose by eleven percentage points during the period up to the summer of 2016 whilst there was a fall of 5.6 percentage points in the proportion of employees in temporary or agency work. Overall, the proportion of fixed-term contracts of employment increased slightly compared to the point in time at which application was made, and there was a corresponding small fall in the proportion of permanent contracts.

Average gross work income per month of those in employment at the respective point in time was almost a quarter (23.7 %) higher in the summer of 2016 than at the time of application. This rise is largely directly or indirectly attributable to recognition. Only around five percentage points of the increase are the result of general wage development over the past years. Three percentage points are consequences of the removal of involuntary part-time work and of the higher average weekly working time thus created in summer 2016. Average weekly working time rose due to an increase of 15.3 per cent in the proportion of persons in full-time employment and a corresponding decrease in the number of staff employed on a part-time and “mini-job” basis (cf. Figure). The remaining 16 percentage points of the total rise of around 24 per cent are due to instances of occupational advancement to contracts of employment that provide higher levels of remuneration.

Utilisation of a notice of equivalence on the labour market takes time. This is, for example, revealed by the fact that the rise in average gross earnings becomes larger as time goes by after recognition (cf. Table 3).

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Table 3: Rise in average gross earnings following time of application, n = 54 weighted


In light of the key indicators stated, it comes as no surprise that more than one in two applicants (53.4 %) evaluate their personal occupational situation as being better in the summer of 2016 than at the time when application for recognition was made. Nine in ten respondents (89.9 %) also believe that recognition is the reason for their successful career entry or advancement. Around three quarters attribute the fact that they now earn more and that line managers hold them in higher esteem than previously to recognition (74.6 % and 72.3 % respectively).

Because recognition also involves time and costs, a point of interest of the evaluation was to examine how the former applicants assess such expenditure in relation to the benefits they have derived. 44.4 per cent of respondents feel that benefits outweigh costs, and 24.5 per cent feel that costs and benefits were about equal. 23.1 per cent are, however, of the view that recognition has not yet paid off for them. No statistically significant correlation to duration since recognition is revealed in this regard. Both those submitting their applications at an earlier or later point in time contained equal proportions of disappointed persons who did not feel that recognition had been worthwhile. Nevertheless, the vast majority (84.4 %) of respondents would recommend friends and colleagues with a professional or vocational qualification acquired abroad to seek recognition (only 2.5 % would advise against taking such a step).



In summary, we can say that respondents have experienced a significant improvement in labour market integration in the non-regulated sector following recognition. After successful recognition, characteristics such as income and the chances to work in a field of employment that is related to a person’s qualification are enhanced. A majority of respondents also assess their own occupational situation as being better at the time of the survey that at the time when application was made and believe that career entries and advancement and the greater esteem they enjoy from parties such as their employer are due to recognition.

This means that a notice attesting full (or partial) equivalence exerts a positive influence on a person’s personal occupational situation, including in sectors where access is possible without professional or vocational recognition. Although persons with a notice of full recognition of their qualification arrive at a better personal costs-benefits assessment, those who are in possession of partial equivalence also mainly draw positive conclusions. The data analysis also shows that persons whose qualification has been accorded recognition with an occupation in which there are currently shortages on the labour market are more likely to come to a positive view.


Apart from the standardised questionnaire which has been subjected to a secondary analysis for the purpose of this article, the evaluation has made use of many more datasets and has triangulated various methodological approaches in order to test the causality of the labour market effects observed. Although this has proved successful for the overall statistical population of successful applicants, the low sample sizes of applicants in the non-regulated sector included in the standardised survey means that there are limitations with regard to calculating further differentiations by sub-groups (e.g. certain nationalities, reference occupations, full-time and part-time employees) and in terms of arriving at definitive conclusions in respect of these sub-groups.

In addition, the focus of the standardised questionnaire was on the development of labour market integration of successful applicants. Persons with a foreign qualification who did not submit an application or else received a negative notice did not form an object of the investigation and thus cannot be used as a comparison group.


The procedures governed by the Recognition Act may only currently be used by persons who are in possession of a formal qualification. This state of affairs constitutes a major challenge in respect of the occupational integration of refugees and asylum seekers. According to the Bundesagentur für Arbeit (BA) [Federal Employment Agency], just under 74 per cent of refugees who are registered as job seekers do not hold a formal vocational education and training qualification (cf. BA 2016, p. 6). At the same time, the figures which emerge from a representative survey of 4,500 refugees conducted by the Institut für Arbeitsmarkt- und Berufsforschung (IAB) [Institute for Employment Research], das Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge (BAMF) [Federal Office for Migration and Refugees] and the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) show that the areas of potential offered by refugees are considerable. 73 per cent have occupational experience at the time when they arrive in Germany (cf. BRÜCKER et al. 2016, p. 8) and have thus acquired work-related specialist and methodological knowledge in non-formal and informal learning processes.

Large numbers of people who have attended school in Germany may also have employment and occupational experiences which extend over a period for many years despite not holding a formal VET qualification. Nevertheless, there is currently no possibility of formal recognition of the employability skills of such persons. In order to close this gap in recognition practice, a relevant validation procedure is being developed within the scope of the ValiKom project. Experiences gained from the Recognition Act and procedural standards from the skills analysis mentioned above are being used for this purpose. The limitations of the Recognition Act that have been presented highlight the significance of employability skills not acquired via formal and informal routes. Developing new procedures to improve the opportunities of every single individual on the labour market is considered to be an important future challenge, and this is also mentioned by the respondents to the 2015 BIBB “Vocational Education and Training Expert Monitor” (cf. VELTEN/HERDIN 2015). Establishment of firm legal provision will play a crucial role in this regard. According to the BIBB Expert Monitor, respondents accord a high degree of significance to competencies acquired by informal and non-formal means. In the eyes of the experts, the enactment of a new law is an object of controversy. The majority prefers the adaptation of existing laws. Just over one in two is in favour of an adjustment of the BBiG or of the higher education laws. Most respondents also take a positive view of expanding the BQFG (cf. VELTEN/HERDIN 2015, p. 34). We need to wait and see how relevant procedures develop and the form that the establishment of (legal) provision will take.

BRÜCKER, H. et al.: Flucht, Ankunft in Deutschland und erste Schritte der Integration [Flight, arrival in Germany and first steps towards integration] (IAB Brief Report 24/2016) – URL: http://doku.iab.de/kurzber/2016/kb2416.pdf  (retrieved: 27.09.2017)

BUNDESAGENTUR FÜR ARBEIT (BA): Hintergrundinformation „Geflüchtete Menschen in den Arbeitsmarktstatistiken – Erste Ergebnisse“ [Background information “Refugees in the labour market statistics – initial results”]. Nuremberg 2016 – URL: https://statistik.arbeitsagentur.de/Statischer-Content/Statistische-Analysen/Statistische-Sonderberichte/Generische-Publikationen/Gefluechtete-Menschen-in-den-Arbeitsmarktstatistiken.pdf  (retrieved: 27.09.2017)

BUNDESMINISTERIUM FÜR BILDUNG UND FORSCHUNG: Bericht zum Anerkennungsgesetz 2017 [2017 Report on the Recognition Act]. Berlin 2017 – URL: www.bmbf.de/pub/Bericht_zum_Anerkennungsgesetz_2017.pdf (retrieved: 27.09.2017)

EKERT, S. et al.: Evaluation des Anerkennungsgesetzes. Abschlussbericht [Evaluation of the Recognition Act. Final Report]. Berlin/Frankfurt 2017 – URL: www.interval-berlin.de/documents/Evaluation_Anerkennungsgesetz_Abschlussbericht_2017.pdf  (retrieved: 27.09.2017)

VELTEN, S.; HERDIN, G.: Anerkennung informellen und non-formalen Lernens in Deutschland. Ergebnisse aus dem BIBB-Expertenmonitor Berufliche Bildung 2015 [Recognition of informal and non-formal learning in Germany. Results from the 2015 BIBB Expert Monitor]. Bonn 2016 – URL: www.bibb.de/dokumente/pdf/a24_Expertenmonitor_Anerkennung_informellen_Lernens_April_2016.pdf  (retrieved: 27.09.2017)

  • 1 BBiG = Berufsbildungsgesetz / Vocational Training Act
    HwO = Handwerksordnung / Crafts and Trades Regulation Code

Dr., Managing Director of INTERVAL GmbH Berlin (lead company for the evaluation of the Recognition Act)

Research Associate in the “Recognition of Foreign Professional Qualifications” Division at BIBB

Research Associate in the “Recognition of Foreign Professional Qualifications” Division at BIBB


Translation from the German original (published in BWP 6/2017): Martin Kelsey, GlobalSprachTeam, Berlin