4.1 Introduction: Social Ties and Professional Careers of Immigrants’ Descendants

While the body of research on social mobility and professional trajectories of immigrants’ descendants has been growing considerably in the past years, our knowledge about the role of social ties for successful entries in the labour market is still patchy. Quite some research on the social networks of immigrants and their descendants has been focusing on the old question whether ‘co-ethnicity’ leads to a “mobility trap” (Wiley, 1967) or to which degree it can help compensating disadvantages and provide ‘alternative’ pathways to upward social mobility – this is, not least, one of the main pillars of Segmented Assimilation Theory (cf. Portes & Zhou, 1993; Zhou et al., 2008).

The distinction between ‘ethnic’ and ‘non-ethnic’ or ‘cross-ethnic ties’ is also prominent in migration research that takes up Mark Granovetter’s distinction between ‘weak’ and ‘strong ties’. Granovetter himself did not use ethnic categories in his definition of social ties (cf. Granovetter, 1973, 1371–73), and it is certainly questionable whether his distinction of weak vs. strong ties should conceptually be paralleled to the distinction ‘ethnic’ vs. ‘non-ethnic’ (or ‘cross-ethnic’) ties (see introductory chapter). ‘Ethnic ties’ can both be stronger and weaker, and the same goes for ‘cross-ethnic ties’ – even more so in a diversifying ‘post-migration’ society. Accordingly, some scholars have been clearly critical of the simplistic dichotomy of strong versus weak ties along ethnic lines (Ryan, 2011, 2016; Moroşanu, 2016). Ryan (2016), in particular, proposes to rather distinguish between ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical ties’ and emphasizes that relevant ties connecting individuals to people in more advantageous social positions (‘vertical ties’) are not necessarily with ‘natives’, but may also be with ‘co-ethnics’. She also questions Granovetter’s suggestion that predominantly weak ties are at play in upward social mobility and argues that a certain strength is needed for ties to be useful (Ryan, 2016). Following Ryan, even ‘strong ethnic ties’ may thus be relevant for finding jobs that allow social mobility. There are thus still many unresolved questions regarding the kind of social ties that matter for professional careers of migrants and their children, which calls for further empirical research.

This chapter builds upon the criticism of the often too one-sided application of Granovetter’s concept of social ties in migration research and aims at moving beyond the dichotomies described above by using empirical evidence from two qualitative research projects on the professional trajectories of immigrants’ descendants. We argue that the relevance of different forms of social ties for their professional trajectories depends on the specific professional contexts, they (want to) enter – an aspect that up to date has received surprisingly little empirical attention (but see Keskiner & Crul, 2017). By comparing the role of social ties for the access to jobs in different professional sectors, we will demonstrate that the respective contexts shape whether and to which degree the strength or weakness of ties and the ‘ethnic dimension’ matter – and that this affects in a particular way the possibilities and trajectories of children from immigrant working-class families.

Further, we argue that it is necessary to conceive the relation between individual social ties and occupational contexts as a dynamic interplay in the sense that both undergo changes over time. These dynamics of change work in two directions: first, the relevance of different forms of social ties changes in the course of individual careers, and this also applies to the role of ‘ethnic’ or ‘cross-ethnic’ ties (cf. Ryan, 2016); second, also the contexts undergo historical changes through increasing global mobility and connections as well as demographic changes produced by immigration and children of immigrants’ coming of age. The more the latter enter higher status jobs, the more likely the flows of resources and information via social networks foster ‘self-propelling processes’ of upward social mobility among individuals of immigrant and working-class background (Crul et al., 2017, 335; see also the chapters by Keskiner and Waldring and Rezai and Keskiner in this book). Observing these processes does not mean to deny the continued significance of exclusionary and discriminatory practices towards children of immigrants and anyone labelled as ‘Other’ at all stages of education and in the access to the labour market (see for the German context, which we focus on in this chapter Kaas & Manger, 2010; Antidiskriminierungsstelle des Bundes, 2017). Regarding the persistent risk of discrimination in the access to jobs, social networks play an ambivalent role for immigrants’ descendants: while lacking contacts to potential employers may contribute to exclusion from jobs given that recruitment practices often draw on networks and recommendations (e.g. Jenkins, 1986; Bommes, 1996), opportunities to gather contacts in the professional field may allow to bypass potential discrimination in the regular hiring process.

We will show the contextual significance of specific social ties and its temporal dynamics by looking at the trajectories of immigrants’ descendants in two occupational sectors in Germany: law and public administration. These two sectors were chosen because, beyond their differences, they show some relevant similarities: They are both characterized by a strongly formally structured and organised transition from education to occupation. In both cases this transition is accompanied by a meritocratic discourse that states the importance of individual qualification, while background aspects such as family background allegedly only play a minor role. As we will show in our analysis, social ties related to the social and ‘ethnic’ background matter quite considerably. But they matter in different ways in both sectors – an observation which we strive to explain.

4.2 The Role of Context – A Brief Look into the Literature

Since Granovetter’s seminal work, a considerable number of studies has demonstrated the importance of social ties for finding a job and further developed the original hypotheses (Lin, 1999; Marsden & Gorman, 2001). But so far, there is only limited knowledge about the influence of occupational contexts on the type of social ties and their overall relevance for job access and mobility trajectories. Variations in the use of social ties are often attributed to socio-economic and occupational status (Marsden & Gorman, 2001, 467ff.), while less research has systematically investigated the role of institutional contexts (see also Gerber & Mayorova, 2010; Sharone, 2014). Yet, there are some empirical indications that they play an important role.

Particularly studies on the Chinese context have challenged Granovetter’s argument of the ‘strength of weak ties’ arguing that due to the specific Chinese cultural and institutional context, strong ties would be more important for job seeking (e.g. Bian, 1997; Xiao & Tsui, 2007; Obukhova & Zhang, 2017). Further, a number of comparative studies find cross-national differences between the US (where the majority of research has been conducted) and other national contexts regarding the relevance of networks (De Graaf & Flap, 1988; McDonald et al., 2012) and the strength of useful social ties for job seeking (Sharone, 2014). These are explained by institutional differences in labour markets and hiring processes, such as the degree of bureaucratization.

In migration research, some empirical studies on the role of social networks for labour market integration address the relevance of receiving contexts (Kalter & Kogan, 2014; Toma, 2016), yet they focus on migrants, not on immigrant children whose conditions for labour market entry differ. For children of immigrants, Crul and Schneider (2010) emphasize the role of institutional contexts for individual trajectories. In their Integration Context Theory, they show this particularly in the field of education: national school systems in Europe produce very different educational outcomes for children of immigrants who entered these systems with very similar starting positions. This obviously has effects also on the transition to the labour market and the options for different professional pathways. But pathways also differ because occupational fields react in different ways to newcomers of working-class and/or immigrant background and provide different mobility opportunities – even when there are no differences in the formally necessary educational credentials to fellow newcomers of non-immigrant and middle-class background (Lang et al., 2018; Keskiner & Crul, 2017; Crul et al., 2017).

More generally, social theory supports the assumption that social contexts shape the relevance of social ties for professional mobility. Granovetter (1985) himself emphasized the embeddedness of (economic) actions in social structures. Giddens (1984) conceived the continuous interrelationship of social structures, producing and framing actions which in turn reproduce or challenge given structures. In similar ways, Luhmann’s systems theory models the co-constitutive interdependence of social systems, forms of inclusion and social identities, whereas Bourdieu would distinguish field-specific as well as field-generating forms of capital, habitus and (formal and informal) modes of access or ‘rules of the game’ (Bourdieu, 1979; Nassehi & Nollmann, 2004).

Both theoretical and empirical studies thus suggest that the analysis of social ties should consider the respective social contexts they connect or are embedded into. We can assume that for social mobility and professional trajectories of immigrants’ descendants, apart from their family and educational settings, especially the occupational context matters. However, up to date there is only little knowledge about how exactly institutional or organisational conditions of occupational fields exert an influence and what kind of ties play which role for the access to jobs or the professional advancement – especially for ‘social climbers’ whose participation in certain sectors of the labour market is anything but the rule. This question requires closer examination. Since the context-specific form and relevance of ties call for a comparative perspective, we will now take a more detailed look at two contrasting cases in order to identify similarities and differences of the contextual influence.

4.3 Two Case Studies: Making a Career in Law and Public Administration in Germany

4.3.1 The Empirical Material

The two case studies that we want to present work with empirical material that comes from two research projects in Germany. In the Pathways to Success project we studied upward social mobility trajectories of children from working-class families into professional positions in four sectors: law, business, teaching, and public administration. These trajectories were collected in the form of 70 in-depth interviews with offspring from working-class families who had immigrated from Turkey and 20 interviews with children from non-immigrant working-class families (see Lang et al., 2018). The interviews focused particularly on the childhood and school experiences, the educational trajectories and transition into work, and finally the professional careers until the moment of the interview.Footnote 1

The second database this article builds on derives from a PhD project, which had an institutional starting point: it examined the employment of immigrants’ descendants in public administration, specifically at the local level – in three district administrations in Berlin (see Lang, 2019). The project produced interviews with staff members of immigrant background, but also with training supervisors, HR officers, integration commissioners, heads of administrative departments as well as political actors and NGO representatives. It focused mainly on the access to the middle grade of the local civil service via vocational training which is one of the major regular recruitment channels of public administrations in Germany. Since the project’s main interest was on organisational recruitment practices and their effects, no specific ‘ethnic focus’ was pre-set. The family origins of the interviewees comprised single respondents of Lebanese, Iranian, Kazakh, and Polish background, two respondents respectively of Ukrainian and Vietnamese background, and 13 interviewees from families that had immigrated from Turkey. The predominance of respondents with a Turkish background reflects their larger share among the administrative personnel (Lang, 2019, 109).Footnote 2 Although the project sampling did not rest on ethno-national differentiations, the analysis investigated if and how such categories became relevant in organisational practices. However, for the focus of this chapter on social ties, we can exclude the specific ethnic background as a relevant variable, since in both law and public administration persons of any immigrant background are strongly underrepresented, so that the ‘second generation experiences’ described by our respondents in both research projects are very similar.

In this chapter, we focus on descendants of immigrant working-class families who are working in law and public administration. For the analysis of the law sector, we included 18 interviews with respondents from the Pathways to Success project working in three subsectors: in the judiciary as judges or state attorneys (four respondents), in law firms as employed lawyers (four respondents), and as independent lawyers with their own law firms (ten respondents).Footnote 3 Our public administration sample includes 34 interviews of respondents working mainly at the municipal level, but also in regional and federal administrative institutions (13 from the Pathways to Success project and 21 from the dissertation project). The age of the respondents at the time of the interviews ranged between mid-20 and 50 years; some had just begun their careers, others were already professionally established.Footnote 4 As for gender composition: of the law respondents 11 were male and seven female; of the public administration respondents seven were male and 27 female, the latter reflecting the general overrepresentation of women in public administration professions.

The empirical analysis investigated what kind of social ties became relevant for our respondents’ professional trajectories and how they became relevant, especially for the access to jobs and – in the case of independent lawyers – for establishing their law firms. We did not focus on our respondents’ general social networks but only on those contacts which offered relevant resources, i.e. social capital (Lin & Erickson, 2010, 4). For each interviewee we coded the function of social ties for the trajectory, the types of ties (e.g. friends, family, professional contacts, institutional contacts), and their ethnic composition.

4.3.2 Comparing Professional Fields: Law and Public Administration

The basic structure of the public administration in Germany as well as of most of the law professions goes back to the Prussian state – which was exemplary for the aspired rationality of its bureaucracy and institutions. Despite being a monarchy, it became a model for how a ‘modern state’ can and should be effectively organised and, ideally, serve not only the rulers, but also the population. Some of its basic principles are still in place which especially includes a strong state influence on those professions that Prussia considered to be of particular importance for the state functioning and its provision of basic welfare aspects: teaching, jurisprudence, medicine, and administration. Germany’s educational system is still basically public from primary to higher education, and also private or denominational schools have to follow the public curriculum. In the above mentioned professional fields, the German state still not only regulates, but also organises the pathway until becoming a full professional, including the transition from higher education into professional activity by taking the final exams and by providing a structured period of compulsory traineeship programs – even though, in the end, most doctors and lawyers will not become part of the civil service or work in public institutions.

Besides the strong role of the state in the organisation of access to law professions and public administration, both occupational fields are characterised by a meritocratic discourse that states the importance of individual qualifications, while asserting that the social or ethnic background would not play a role (or only a minor one) for access to occupational positions.

For each of the two fields we will subsequently first briefly sketch the main context characteristics before presenting what kind of social ties mattered for our respondents’ professional trajectories and how they mattered.

4.4 Law

4.4.1 Educational and Occupational Context

In Germany, law professions require completed university studies, which end with the first of two state exams. This exam is quite demanding, so in order to pass or to get good grades, most students opt for repetition courses (Repetitorium) that are mostly not part of the tuition-free university program, but offered by private bureaus or coaches at corresponding costs (Kilian, 2016). The successfully passed first exam is followed by a mandatory 2-year traineeship period (Referendariat) that is organised by the administration of justice of the respective state (Bundesland). The Referendariat familiarizes graduates with the most important professional subsectors, such as the court system, public administration, or law firms, thus providing a good opportunity to establish contacts there.Footnote 5 At the end, there is a second state exam, also organised by the states (Bundesländer).

The grades of the two exams play a significant role for the transition to work. Obtaining a so-called ‘exam with distinction’ (Prädikatsexamen) serves as the most important dividing line for the access to the judiciary, i.e. to become a judge or state attorney, for high-level civil servant positions in public administration, or for entering one of the large prestigious corporate law firms. These subsectors also offer the highest social prestige within the law field, in combination with either the highest possible income (law firms) or complete job security in combination with a very good salary (civil service). Achieving a Prädikatsexamen has a strong positive effect on the later income (Freier et al., 2016).

Less than 20% of a graduate cohort obtain a ‘distinction’ in one of the two exams.Footnote 6 Those with grades below this line basically have three options: to start their own law firm, to become part of an existing shared office of independent lawyers, or to enter the legal department of some company or association.Footnote 7 The ‘distinction’ precludes but also creates professional opportunities. As one respondent told us, it was only when he – unexpectedly – obtained a ‘distinction’ in his first exam, that he started considering other professional options than becoming ‘just some lawyer’:

I always just wanted to pass, right? And then it was an exam ‘with distinction’. And, of course, that awakened some things, especially perspectives for working as a (corporate) lawyer or start a career in the judiciary. So, since the first exam went very well, I applied for the large law firms, because the grades were so good, right? I had never thought that I could end up in one of these big law firms, but then with the good exam I got hooked and realised that I could definitely work there. So, for my Referendariat I applied and worked in an American corporate law firm. (Ferhat Oktay, 37, independent lawyer in Frankfurt/Main)Footnote 8

The law field strongly emphasises formal meritocracy for accessing its most prestigious subsectors. This held true for our respondents in the sense that ‘merit’, defined as having obtained a ‘distinction’ in the final exams, proved to be more important than family background or other non-professional criteria and thus a good starting point for a career in these sectors. At the same time, our research revealed a number of blind spots in this meritocracy: Our respondents, as offspring from working-class families, could usually not draw on family support in study-related issues and had limited financial means. Working in student jobs to afford the money for rent and living, however, can go at the cost of study success. In law studies, specifically, successfully passing the exam can be a financial question, since it is difficult to obtain good grades without attending repetition courses. But these courses can be quite expensive, especially the better ones. Further, in many parts of the law field, a certain upper middle-class habitus is taken for granted. This begins in university and frequently leads to rather separated social networks among students. However, the right habitus can then be more or less implicitly expected later from applicants for positions (Lang et al., 2018, 126f.; Schneider & Lang, 2014; cf. Hartmann & Kopp, 2001).Footnote 9 Against the background of these potential disadvantages for the offspring from working-class and immigrant families entering the law field, we will now investigate how social ties and what kind of social ties became resources for the professional trajectory.

4.4.2 The Role of Social Ties

For the majority of our respondents, social ties mattered for entering the law field. Often, respondents got their first job in a law firm or in a shared office of independent lawyers where they had already worked before in part-time jobs and internships during studies or, more often, during their Referendariat (the 2-year traineeship). The relevant social ties were thus mainly ‘weak ties’ within the professional field. Acquaintances and former fellow students who they met at university, however, played a role, too. Depending on frequency, intensity, intimacy and reciprocity, those ties can be both weaker or stronger (cf. Granovetter, 1973, 1361). In contrast, only very few respondents could make use of social ties that were connected to their families or the social environment of their childhood and youth.

For building up social capital, the traineeship functions similarly well for all subsectors within the law field. Social ties established during this period facilitated the transition into the labour market also for those of our respondents whose exam grades were below the ‘magic threshold’ of a ‘distinction’ (Prädikatsexamen). The above cited Ferhat Oktay, for instance, got his first job after graduation in a renowned international auditing company, despite the fact that he had not achieved a ‘distinction’ in his second exam – but he had spent a part of his traineeship there:

I did my elective part at [this company], therefore they already knew me. And there I must have made a good impression, I don’t know. They said: “Okay, Mr Oktay, if you want to start here, you can start right away.” Perhaps I had the advantage that they already got to know me during my Referendariat.

However, we also find differences in the role of social ties across the subsectors we investigated – the judiciary, large law firms and independent lawyers – and depending on the exam grades. For those of our respondents working in corporate law firms and the judiciary, the good exam grades as a form of institutionalised cultural capital were more important for obtaining their job. All four respondents who worked as judges or state attorneys had obtained their positions without having had a previous connection to the employer; this was also the case for several of the respondents with a ‘distinction’ who had been employed in law firms at some point in their career.

But also for respondents with good exam grades, social ties to former fellow students, colleagues or former superiors in their Referendariat became relevant to be recommended for or informed about open positions or for receiving professional advice at the right time. For example, one of the judges we interviewed, who worked the first years of his career in the corporate law sector, applied for the judiciary only after a colleague advised him about entry modalities and motivated him to apply.

The social ties that became resources for trajectories in large law firms or the judiciary were ties exclusively to members of the non-immigrant middle-class which still dominates the law sector in terms of numbers and habitus.

The type and role of social ties differed for those of our respondents who became independent lawyers. To start one’s own small law firm requires building up a clientele that allows to ‘survive’ in the competition with all the other independent lawyers in the respective city (see also the chapter of Keskiner and Waldring in this book). A Turkish name on a lawyer’s office plate is still likely to ‘put off’ potential clients of non-immigrant background, but it can also work as a ‘unique selling point’ towards potential clients of Turkish or other immigrant backgrounds. Ties into the ‘ethnic community’ mattered for seven out of the ten independent lawyers of Turkish or Kurdish immigrant background in our sample. For a newly starting independent lawyer it might be a rational or effective strategy to build up a broad network of connections within the local ‘ethnic community’:

You have to be realistic: as a Turkish lawyer you only get Turkish clients. There is no Hans Müller going to pass by and ring my bell. No non-Turk will ever go to a Turkish lawyer. (Eray Dogruel, 40, independent lawyer in Berlin)

On the long run, we want to represent entrepreneurs and also do business criminal law, and you cannot do this, if you specialise on Turkish clients. At the same time, we knew that if we start a new office, there is a lot of potential because of the (high number) of Turkish population here, so that we would have some basic income in any case. This means that you cannot start with business criminal law, you have to have some experience. Entrepreneurs will not simply go to a freshman and say: “Take my tax offense case.” […] And the plan worked out, in the sense that a lot of Turkish citizens came to us. (Akin Tekin, 31, independent lawyer in the Ruhr Area)

However, the relevant ‘co-ethnic’ ties had mostly not been ‘automatically there’, in the sense that e.g. family connections within the respective communities would provide a solid starting point for the law firm. Three of our ten independent lawyers made use of pre-university ‘strong ties’ to establish their business by starting the firm together with a school friend or moving back to their hometown. Another respondent took advantage of a left-wing political ‘co-ethnic’ network in university whose members, in parallel to his career, became successful entrepreneurs and business people, and then chose him as their ‘trusted lawyer’. In all other cases, in which a significant share of the clientele was of Turkish or immigrant background, the relevant ties were no ‘strong ties’, but had to be strategically developed by our respondents upon starting the law firm. This is described, for instance, by the following interviewee, a male independent lawyer in a mixed lawyers’ office in Berlin:

Networking is incredibly important. […] In business law […] you always have to go to meetings, to dinners, to associations, to the Chamber of Industry and Commerce and here or there, whatever plays a role in business. There are always events. Being present, behaving reasonably and building up an image as if you were perhaps a good lawyer (laughs). […] It was only after I actually became a lawyer that I opened up to the Turkish community here at all, before I had nothing to do with it in Berlin. (Eray Dogruel, 40, independent lawyer in Berlin)

Another respondent established his law firm in front of the Turkish consulate of his city and became the consulate’s official ‘lawyer of confidence’. Having a Turkish background and speaking the language was, of course, a precondition, but decisive for gaining this special role was that employees at the consulate knew him from an internship he had done during his studies. ‘Co-ethnicity’ worked as a door opener as much for him to the Turkish consulate as it might help creating a basic form of ‘trust’ for potential clients of Turkish background. While the commonality of the ethnic or immigrant background in Germany may serve as basis for a certain level of trust, these professional social ties to ‘co-ethnics’ can be qualified as ‘weak’, according to Granovetter’s definition, regarding the frequency, emotional intensity and reciprocal services characterizing them (cf. Granovetter, 1973, 1361; Ryan, 2011).

As regards building up a clientele, our respondents employed in large law firms applied similar strategies of establishing professional ties to ‘co-ethnics’, for example to Turkish business associations. They took advantage of the fact that increased global connections and the cost-efficiency logic of the corporate sector has led to a growing demand in skills that facilitate contacts and customer relations around the globe, be it language skills or so-called ‘intercultural competences’. In this context, the ‘ethnic background’ can become a resource that allows developing the own specialisation (or ‘desk’) within the law firm. A female associate in a middle-sized corporate law firm explained for instance:

I have now started to do a bit of acquisition […] with regard to Turkish mandates. I’m still quite new, but, I mean, the partners here are all entrepreneurs and have to make acquisitions […] so I’m just looking around and attend events, as far as possible. I get to know Turkish entrepreneurs or German entrepreneurs who have relations to Turkey, and try to build up something for myself. (Rezzan Altundas, 30, associate lawyer in the Ruhr Area)

Our interviews show that developing and using ties to ‘co-ethnics’ is a dynamic process which depends on the career trajectory. For some of the independent lawyers, building up clientele of Turkish or immigrant background was only the entrance point from which they strove to expand their scope, but then on the basis of professional expertise – as it was clearly stated in the interview quote by Akin Tekin above. For those having entered larger law firms, specialising on clients from Turkey or of Turkish origin can be a strategic choice at a later stage of the career after having proved their general professional skills – like in the case of Rezzan Altundas above (see also the chapter of Keskiner and Waldring in this book).

These strategic decisions for career development are not necessarily connected to a particular sense of belonging to the ‘ethnic community’. We find no direct relationship between being a lawyer for the ‘Turkish community’ and expressing ‘strong (ethnic) ties’ and identities in our respondents’ private lives: Maintaining professional networks that are based on a definition of ‘shared ethnicity’ – in the sense of a resource for building up ‘trust’ and facilitating communication (in linguistic terms, but also in terms of habitus or ‘socio-cultural familiarity’) – can go smoothly along with private relationships mainly to people from other backgrounds.

In sum, we can see that in the field of law in Germany different types of especially ‘weak ties’ became useful resources for the professional trajectories of our respondents. Social ties helped concretely to obtain a position or served more generally as information channel about open positions; further, social ties were crucial for building up a clientele in the case of independent lawyers. By far most of this social capital was built up in a profession-related context: at university to fellow students, during student jobs or internships, or – which proved to be most relevant – during the compulsory 2-year traineeship Referendariat. We cannot say to which degree offspring of non-immigrant middle-class families make use of ‘strong’ social ties to relatives or parents’ friends in their access to jobs. But especially for the offspring from working-class and immigrant families the ties built up during studies and traineeship serve as important social capital and, at least partially, compensate the lack of previous connections in this predominantly non-immigrant professional field.

As our interviews show, these ‘weak ties’ can be both ‘cross-ethnic’ (especially in cases of access to the judiciary and to the field of corporate law) and ‘co-ethnic’ (partially in corporate law firms, but centrally for independent lawyers). Further, the significance of the ‘ethnic’ dimension of ties can change in the course of a career. This depends on the specific career path and specialisation, but also on contextual factors, such as the demand for specific linguistic skills and ‘cultural intimacy’ and the background of those holding relevant positions in the field. Vice versa, the narratives of our respondents demonstrate that professionally relevant ‘co-ethnic’ ties are not automatically ‘strong ties’ as also Ryan has argued for the case of first-generation migrants (Ryan, 2011); these ‘co-ethnic ties’ can also be career-enhancing ‘weak ties’.

4.5 Public Administration

4.5.1 Educational and Occupational Context

Public administration professions in Germany are structured according to two main dividing principles: (a) between civil servants (Beamte) who have full job (and pension) security and those with normal employment contracts (Angestellte); and (b) between different service class groups, which go along with different salary levels: ‘lower grade’, ‘middle grade’, ‘upper grade’ and ‘higher grade’ (einfacher, mittlerer, gehobener, höherer Dienst) (Bogumil & Jann, 2009). Access to administrative professions takes place primarily via internally organised qualification programs, and this is also true for career advancement to higher grades. Formal requirement for the middle grade is a 3-year vocational training (e.g. as administrative clerk) which combines training on the job in different departments of an administrative body with vocational school. For the upper and higher grades, a higher education degree is required, either from a specialised institution for vocational higher education (Fachhochschule für öffentliche Verwaltung) or from university, but then usually in combination with an additional preparation program. But, many candidates for positions at higher managerial levels also access via internal qualification programs (Reichard & Röber, 2012, 14–17).

Immigrants and immigrant descendants are still strongly underrepresented in public administration. The German microcensus estimates for 2013 that less than 7% of the staff has a ‘migration background’Footnote 10 (Ette et al., 2016, 32) versus a share in the total German population of about 25%. Voluntary surveys in the administrations of the cities Hamburg (in 2009) and Bremen (in 2014) came to estimate the share of staff members ‘with a migration background’ at 9% in Hamburg and 13% in Bremen, with a total share of about one third of the population in both cities (Bürgerschaft der Freien und Hansestadt Hamburg, 2009; Die Senatorin für Finanzen, 2014). Also international comparison shows a particularly pronounced underrepresentation of children of immigrants in the overall civil service in Germany (OECD, 2015, 267). Since the ‘migration background’ is not included in civil service statistics, available data is limited, but it can be assumed that staff with a ‘migration background’ mainly works in lower positions (see also the recent study by Ette et al., 2021).

Since the mid-2000s, increasing the share of staff members with a ‘migration background’ in public administration has become a key objective of integration policies at all levels (Gesemann et al., 2012; Die Bundesregierung, 2012). Concrete programmes have been set up mainly on the local level, mostly targeting the access to vocational training within the administration, i.e. the access to the middle grade of the civil service (Gesemann et al., 2012, 54–55). In some administrations, the share of young staff members from immigrant families has indeed increased in recent years, but the lack of data makes it difficult to systematically measure long-term changes (Lang, 2019). Access to higher positions has so far hardly been an issue of concrete policies.

4.5.2 The Role of Social Ties

The trajectories of our respondents into employment in public administration show that social ties played a crucial role, particularly for the dissemination of information about professional options or open positions and for the motivation to apply. The lack of information appears as an important barrier for the access to this occupational sector. For most of our respondents who were working in public administration at the time of the interviews, public administration professions, and the civil service more generally, had been a ‘black box’ before. Hardly anyone had originally planned to enter this field, partly because of the mixed image, more often because they simply neither knew about the range of jobs and professions or the career opportunities, nor did they know how to access the sector. Only very few of our respondents had seen a job advertisement or heard about public administration professions in the job orientation programmes in secondary school, at least not in a way that had made an impact.

Parents and other older relatives could not serve as role models either, since the parental generation of our respondents was largely formally excluded from administrative jobs for not having the required formal qualifications, or, in many cases, a German or EU-citizenship which is needed for civil servant positions.Footnote 11 Furthermore, for many immigrants and their children, the main experience with the administration had been the rather formal or frequently even unpleasant contact at the local ‘Office for Foreigners’ (Ausländerbehörde). Our respondents ‘inherited’ the perceived and actual barriers their parent’s generation faced – in form of negative experiences, distrust or a lack of relations to persons working in the sector who could motivate applications.

In the large majority of the cases investigated (24 out of 34 respondents), the application in public administration was more or less directly related to social contacts who had passed on information about job or vocational training opportunities or given the advice to give it a try. In some cases, the information concerned specific programmes preparing young people with a migration background for the vocational training in public administration, which had been set up e.g. in Berlin (where the majority of the interviews were conducted), following the political objective to increase the share of staff members with a migration background.

In contrast to the law field, the relevant social ties were overwhelmingly private ‘strong ties’ (21 cases) and usually ties to ‘co-ethnics’ (15 cases): mostly friends, occasionally family members or neighbours, typically someone of their own generation who had recently started working in some public administration department or had shared information s/he had rather coincidentally come across e.g. in the media or in school. By contrast, institutional sources of information about job opportunities – e.g. teachers, job advisors, and counselling organisations – only played a role in six cases in our sample, partly also backed up by the advice of friends or family members. Quite typical trajectories are described, for instance, in the following two quotes. The first is by a young woman of Turkish descent who, after having finished her university studies, applied for a job at the employment agency. This job became the starting point of a career within public administration that led to her current position as a project officer in a regional state authority. The second example comes from a young woman of Turkish descent who had accessed public administration via the vocational training and received a position as school secretary after completion of the training:

A friend of mine who worked at the employment agency as job placement officer told me to apply at the employment agency: “They are looking for young women with a migration background, you have good chances.” I was like, “no way” – the employment agency was out of question for me, and then I just did it, […] more out of desperation, I must say. Then I had a job interview which I found quite good […], because they did not ask so much for knowledge, but rather looked for social competences, and then I thought, well, you will do that for a while and keep on looking, and then I got in there. (Aysun Ulucan, 33, project officer in the state administration in Berlin)

My friend said: Look, I found something that looks interesting. And she said: Let’s apply together. Actually, that was really how it happened. I personally had not looked for the position because I had no idea. I didn’t know that you could do your vocational training in the civil service. (Ebru Öztaş, 22, school secretary in Berlin)

The importance of strong ties to friends and family members can be related to the specific significance of social ties for the access to public administration. As these examples show, the mere information about positions might not be sufficient for the decision to apply, it needs to come from a ‘trustful’ source, and possibly also some persuasion, to perceive it as an option for the personal trajectory. A certain level of trust seems necessary to overcome the above-mentioned barriers and distrust inherited from the parental generation. This is also demonstrated in the case of the following respondent of Lebanese background who entered the field via a preparation programme for young people with a migration background which her sister had told her about; after that she started the vocational training and became administrative clerk:

That didn’t interest me at all. Of course, I know where I have to apply for my identity card or that my parents had stress with the job center, you obviously see this at home. […] When my sister came to me and said “Try it out, do it, it’s better than nothing”, I didn’t want to […] until she really convinced me. (Iman Hussein, 24, administrative clerk in Berlin)

The importance of strong ties for the access to public administration leads to an interesting change of the field. Most of our respondents were still the first staff members of immigrant background in their departments. Some had reported from friends or cousins who had recently started working in public administration and motivated their own application. Now, having entered this sector, they became important network contacts themselves who regularly passed on information about employment opportunities to friends and relatives, and advised them to apply. This is exemplified in the following quote by a young woman who, at the time of the interview, had recently started working in a local administration:

Since I completed my vocational training, I’ve heard from several friends: Send me the address, I also want to apply there. Only then has it somehow become a topic. I think, before it was… maybe it should be promoted a bit more and also more shown to the immigrants that there is such a possibility. […] My friends and acquaintances didn’t think too much about it. But when they now hear “public administration”, they think it’s good and that it’s a safe job, and many of them ask. (Handan Doğan, 23, administrative clerk in a district administration in Berlin)

In this regard, a common ethnic or immigrant background in Germany, can fulfil a similar function as strong ties to friends and family members: It may also create a basic form of trust and feeling of ‘likeness’, which may support that searching for a job in public administration becomes a serious option. A respondent who worked in the social services department reported for instance:

Recently, I had the daughter of a welfare recipient here, also with a Turkish migration background, […] she saw my name […] she asked me immediately in Turkish whether I was Turkish. […] and then she said “ah, that’s cool” and then she asked me how I did my vocational training, and that’s really great, and how you can apply and this and that… (Sevim Güner, 30, administrative clerk in a district administration in Berlin)

The information and motivation disseminated via, in this case, strong ‘co-ethnic’ ties are important factors leading to growing numbers of young staff members of immigrant descent at least in some administrations. They positively influence the entry via vocational training to the middle grade of the civil service (Lang, 2019). This change happens in a particular historical moment in which rising political claims for more diversity in the civil service are leading to more interest in candidates of immigrant background. Higher positions, however, are still largely exempted from this dynamic.

In sum and in contrast to the law sector, we find clear indications of the importance of ‘strong ties’ and ties to ‘co-ethnics’ for the trajectories of immigrants’ descendants into public administration. This is also due to the fact that, differently from the law sector, the most important resource here are not previous contacts to future employers but ‘trustworthy’ information about professional opportunities – given the generally limited transparency of careers in public administration for outsiders and the particular barriers and ‘sceptical distance’ towards state authorities that children of immigrants may have learned from their parents. For creating a sufficient level of trust, social ties must not be too weak (see also Ryan, 2016), which in our cases involved some probability that the relevant strong ties were to ‘co-ethnics’. But, the ‘ethnic dimension’ in social relationships is an aspect that is currently changing in German society: family networks as much as friendship relations are becoming more and more diverse and thus ‘cross-ethnic’ (cf. Schneider, 2018). On the other hand, ‘co-ethnic’ ties are not automatically ‘strong ties’ – a finding that similarly applies to the field of law, as shown above. ‘Co-ethnicity’ may fulfil a similar function as strong ties by providing a certain credit of trust to individuals that do not belong to one’s close personal and ‘lived’ mutual relationships.

The case of public administration further demonstrates how changes in professional contexts and in individual trajectories are mutually interdependent, with social networks as the ‘mediator’. Contexts shape careers, but they are also shaped by them in the sense that, as the number of immigrants’ descendants in public employment increases, these individuals represent an increasingly relevant resource for following cohorts of similar backgrounds to consider working in public administration a realistic professional option. In this dynamic process, ‘co-ethnic’ ties can be a bridge between ‘outside’ and ‘inside’, into an occupational field in which migrants and their descendants have been strongly underrepresented. For a certain period, ‘co-ethnic’ ties are likely to become even more relevant for the access to this field than before. The case of public administration in Germany thus represents a good example for what was called ‘self-propelling processes’ above: The successful careers of the descendants of immigrants bring about a multiplication process that actively contributes to growing changes in the staff composition.

4.6 Conclusion

The aim of this paper was to add two dimensions to the discussion about the role of ‘strong’ and ‘weak’, ‘ethnic’ and ‘non-ethnic’ ties in professional trajectories of immigrants’ descendants. The first dimension is the interplay of individual social ties and occupational contexts. The ‘logic’ of how access is organised differs across different occupational fields, each field has its specific recruitment channels and modalities. They are more or less formally institutionalised and they can have facilitating or hampering effects particularly for young people of immigrant and of working-class origin.

As we could exemplarily show for the two fields of law and public administration in Germany, these contextual factors include formal aspects – e.g. required educational degrees, grades, compulsory training phases – as much as informal aspects, such as idiosyncratic and habitual elements and network connections for the access to student jobs, internships and information that can turn out to be the starting point for entering the field as a professional. As assumed, these contextual factors also shape how and what type of social ties matter for the successful transition into the professional career. In the case of law professions in Germany, the central role of the exam grade (above or below a ‘distinction’) in the definition of which subsectors are at all accessible is a limiting factor for those who lack the support and economic capital necessary to achieve very good grades, but it also opens up possibilities for those who manage it. The ‘meritocratic belief’ behind the grades – with all its blindness for the effects of social inequality on the chances to obtain them – is an argument for not taking into account social and ‘ethnic’ backgrounds when aiming at recruiting ‘the best’ for the most prestigious jobs. At the same time, the compulsory 2-year traineeship, organised by the state, offers each graduate a paid opportunity for not only gaining practical experience but also making relevant contacts in different subsectors, i.e. creating or strengthening ties which can prove helpful later on. Our data shows that particularly the weak ties established during the traineeship became valuable resources for a smooth transition in the job, partly compensating exam grades below a ‘distinction’. Social ties mattered even more for those who became independent lawyers, i.e. who entered a subsector in which successful transition does not depend on exam grades but on the ability to build up a clientele and develop a network. To do so, also ties to ‘co-ethnics’ became relevant since they allowed to strengthen the ‘unique selling point’ of an immigrant background in the competitive field of independent lawyers or in an internationally oriented corporate law sector.

The role of social ties clearly differs regarding the access to public administration. While the formal academic requirements are lower than in the law field – a vocational higher education diploma is sufficient even for many positions high up in the hierarchy of ministries –, the recruitment modalities are much more diverse and not always transparent for outsiders. Despite career advice provision in schools or at job centres they seem to be little known to young people in search for a professional perspective. For immigrants’ descendants, negative experiences with public authorities may create additional barriers. In this context, information which is passed on via the social networks of those already inside the civil service becomes highly important. Our analysis shows that mainly strong ties and ‘co-ethnic’ ties play a crucial role for immigrants’ descendants since they provide the necessary amount of trust to seriously consider the information about entry and career options in the own professional decisions.

The second dimension is the dynamic of change both in the course of the individual career and as ‘historical change’ of a given field. With regard to the first aspect, we can see that the role of different types of social ties is changing, depending on whether it is about finding an entry point for making a career or about the development of a career over the years and opening up new fields of activity. Depending on the context, ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ ties can be relevant, as we have shown above with several examples from both professional fields. The second aspect is that the contextual premises are subject to historical change as the fields evolve in reaction to changes in society and even at a global scale. This change includes that people of immigrant descent gradually achieve higher positions and by this become ‘pioneers’ or ‘trailblazers’ for other ‘non-traditional’ groups. As it became clear especially for the field of public administration, it is the ‘pioneers’ in the professional fields themselves who contribute to this dynamic of change by distributing information about open positions within their social networks, or even putting a special emphasis on promoting careers of young people from immigrant backgrounds in their professional contexts.

Revisiting Granovetter’s theory of the ‘strength of weak ties’ (1973), we also argued that both strong ties and ties to ‘co-ethnics’ can be productive for the trajectories of individuals of immigrant descent. They do not necessarily hamper career opportunities in the mainstream labour market. At the same time, however, ‘co-ethnic ties’ are not necessarily strong, they can also be productive weak ties that open up opportunities for professional mobility. While we indeed find that contacts to persons outside of the ethnic or immigrant community are important to successfully access the labour market, our interviews indicate that the establishment of new networks between ‘co-ethnics’ in the course of the career may be useful. In these networks, the ‘ethnic’ and the ‘social’ closely intersect: Perceived similarities in family background and culture as well as common experiences as socially mobile children of immigrants in Germany allow trust and thereby add a certain strength which is needed for ties to be useful (cf. Ryan, 2016). Perceived similarities and shared experiences serve as a ‘bridging’ resource which, for example, facilitates the establishment of (weak) ties between highly-educated professionals of immigrant background or between them and other groups which make up (potential) clients. We can expect an increasing importance of such new ‘co-ethnic’ ties, the more socially mobile children of immigrants achieve high status positions in the labour market.