Attracting talent to Hamburg: building relationships and solving problems

Hamburg looks very different from an international perspective than it does domestically. Within the German-speaking world, Hamburg is a strong brand: everyone has heard of the Michel, the Reeperbahn, the port, the Speicherstadt, the musicals and increasingly the Hafencity. Even individual neighbourhoods like St. Pauli, Eppendorf and Eimsbüttel are familiar at least by name, and Hamburg is known as Germany’s media powerhouse. So justifiably, to people in the DACH region, Hamburg is level with places like London and can easily compete with Berlin.

But internationally, Hamburg is not as well known. No-one has heard of the Michel, the Reeperbahn is just a red light district, and most people aren’t aware of Hamburg’s maritime identity. Internationally, people have heard of Hamburg, but couldn’t say where it is on the map.


Hamburg’s not well known abroad. Sketchnotes: Ines Schaffranek

Every now and then, we hear that the authorities in Hamburg want to bolster our international standing: whether to attract more tourists, or – more relevant to Hamburg Startups – attract the brightest and best. I think they are sometimes perplexed by the disconnect between Hamburg’s success within Germany and the outside world. The question is: how to resolve it? How to make Hamburg more attractive internationally, so that talented people want to come and live here, found companies, build a life and make a contribution?

This won’t be easy. Why bother?

Before setting out what needs to be done, it is important to recognise that it isn’t easy, and it costs time, money and effort.

So why bother? Why should a city like Hamburg roll out the red carpet to international talent when it’s far easier to attract top-notch graduates from German universities? These people, after all, speak the language, have fewer problems registering here, can integrate seamlessly into company cultures, and are educated to a very high standard.

Oliver Rößling

Oliver Rößling

I spoke to Oliver Rößling, initiator of the event format and COO / CSO of Absolute Software, a Hamburg software company that relies heavily on attracting highly-skilled developers to Hamburg.

He told me that digitisation is causing massive changes in the way business is done, which requires founders and employees with different skills:

New business models and ways of working mean that Hamburg needs people who internalised the new rules of a digital world in their DNA and who are trained to solve real-world problems.

He says this change is easier for startups to deal with, because they start from scratch. But for large corporations, it is more difficult:

The massive in changes company culture due to the digitalization of business models affect communiction, language, processes, and routines etc. To ease and slow down these effects of change in a fast-paced market, especially large corporates increasingly tend to create external, strategic units like accelerators or incubators to support startups before absorbing them.

This, he says, is a great idea with one problem:

The lack of the right talent is a huge bottle-neck: e.g. digital natives, developers, entrepreneurs etc. To solve that issue Hamburg (and Germany) needs to become sexy on an international scale and attract the right people!

Fresh talents wanted

Fresh talents wanted. Sketchnotes: Ines Schaffranek

Stefan Klein, who works as a Project Director at the Hamburg Business Development Corporation, agrees. Part of his remit is to attract companies to Hamburg and he told me:

Hamburg needs skilled software developers, especially seniors who have several years’ experience. There is a high demand within the games industry.

Patrick Willcocks, a Policy and Strategy Advisor and Teaching Fellow at Birmingham University, says the shortage will only get worse:

There is a forecast EU ICT skills shortage; by 2020 there may be a skills shortage of 900,000 people. International talent bring languages and understanding of different cultures and markets that can enhance Hamburg companies’ competitiveness and access to these markets. … Much of the world’s global growth is outside the EU so wider talent is also important.

Patrick Willcocks

Patrick Willcocks

Add to that the fact that diversity, especially ethnic diversity, appears to make cities more attractive generally for people deciding which city to move to within Germany (according to this paper by the Hamburg Institute of International Economics). So more internationals could make Hamburg even more attractive to Germans too.

Finally, there are specific examples of startups and small businesses that have chosen Hamburg above other international options: take for example TripRebel, TrainingAid and Shhared (the latter two featured on my blog “Why Hamburg?“). Hamburg is a better place because of them.

How to make Hamburg more attractive to international talent

If you accept my opening point – namely that Hamburg has a far less pronounced image internationally than domestically – then you will see that attracting international talent will be far harder and require different activities than recruiting domestic talent.

Consequently, to attract internationals, Hamburg needs to operate in a completely different mode and actively recruit international people instead of maintaining a positive image and waiting for them to come of their own accord.

In concrete terms, what does this mean? Below are some ideas that illustrate the point. In fact, some initiatives such as the Welcome Center and the Hamburg Business Development Corporation are already doing these or similar things. If others are doing them, I’d be glad to hear from them.

User experience: solve internationals’ problems

Firstly, I think it means making an effort to understand the problems that international people face. I’ve started getting to the bottom of some of these with my project “Why Hamburg?“. I don’t want to shout too loudly about problems, because the point of the project is to paint internationals and Hamburg in a good light, and people who emigrate will have similar problems wherever they are.

But by improving “user experience” for internationals in Hamburg, we make it more attractive and bind people. For a non-viral city like Hamburg, this is especially important because people often come here on recommendation.

This could entail helping us through the bureaucracy required to start a company. Many of us have been through that before, so we could offer advice. Those of us with contacts and connections within Hamburg could help people to find accommodation more easily.

To some degree, as Stefan Klein tells me, this already happens:

There have been cases where – within the community surrounding the games industry – people have used their network to help incoming employees find a flat share. But there aren’t the resources to offer this service formally.

I have also noticed a problem with people who come here for the first time not being able to find jobs where no German is required. It may seem strange to come to a country not expecting to have to speak the language, but it should be possible to utilise the talents of non-German speakers and most of them would, during that time, learn the language with the help of their employer or support from outside. Especially for highly skilled people with families, it is a disadvantage if the partner cannot get a job here that utilises their full potential.

And generally, it seems to be difficult for some international people to build a career here because the number of employers requiring their exact skill set can be limited. We need more contact between large international companies and international people who are already here.

Recruitment – building relationships with potential newcomers

Stefan Klein

Stefan Klein

People usually come to Hamburg because of work – either their current employer seconds them to Hamburg or they get an offer for a job in Hamburg – or because of another person, either their partner or because they receive a recommendation from someone. They don’t come here because they have seen a marketing video or a poster in an airport.

So Hamburg should be looking to create more relationships with potential international residents. I suspect the low-hanging fruit would be to target people who are already living in Germany, but who are looking for their next step. These people will hopefully already be registered here, will have at least basic German, and are more open to living in Germany.

One activity could be targeting international people in popular cities like Berlin. Jobs in Hamburg could mean a better quality of life, and the chance to live in Germany long-term whilst earning real money.

The other obvious place to look would be universities across Germany. Building relationships to undergraduates, understanding and helping solve their problems, telling them about people in their situation who love Hamburg. This would make our city an attractive option for these people. Patrick Willcocks says that other cities such as Barcelona are doing this: their 22@Barcelona project seeks to put companies in touch with international students.

According to OECD figures migration to Germany is now the highest in the world except to the USA, so it’s only fair that Hamburg should have its fair share.

Welcome in Hamburg

Welcome to Hamburg. Sketchnotes: Ines Schaffranek.

Who should do all this?

As I mentioned above, it could be pretty costly to do all of the above. I’m sure there are organisations out there who have a strong interest in attracting talent to Hamburg and marketing Hamburg to these people. Larger companies have their own onboarding teams to do just this. So medium term, we need to build an alliance of people and organisations whose job it is, or who have an interest in doing the above. To a certain degree, I also think there is capacity within the network of international people in Hamburg just to help people out. With my project “Why Hamburg?” I’d like to be involved. As I have argued there, people who come here to live and work can only succeed if this city succeeds and we enjoy having a network of people from Germany and further afield. So we too should help make Hamburg attractive and liveable.


About the author and the sketchnotes artist


John Heaven

John Heaven

John Heaven, originally from Birmingham, UK, has lived in Hamburg since March 2010. He is author of the column “Views from Heaven” and of the blog “Why Hamburg?”. John not only creates content himself but helps customers to manage theirs with Drupal, WordPress and other systems. Together with Ferdinand Weps, he offers this and other services under the brand Heaven & Weps. Since 2013 he has been co-organiser of the Social Media Week Hamburg. Before coming to Hamburg he studied Law, followed by a Master’s in International Studies, at Exeter and Saarbrücken and went on to work as a Graduate Trainee at Birmingham City Council. Find more about John!

Ines Schaffranek

Ines Schaffranek

Ines Schaffranek is a passionate Doodler and visual learner. She is blogging about Sketchnotes and Events on Ines works at wirkungsvoll GmbH as a Product Manager and enjoys sharing her knowledge at conferences and barcamps. If you want to meet her you should join the Digital Media Wom

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