Tobias Schlegl was only 17 when he became a television host in Cologne, Germany. He’d been chosen in a street casting and worked full-time in front of the camera for 20 years. But, in 2014, he yearned for a change.
“It wasn’t enough anymore to interview people doing interesting things,” says Schlegl, now 43. “I had to ask myself, ‘What are you doing yourself?’ I knew that I wanted to help people.” So, despite the apprehension of his family, friends and colleagues, he left the TV show and became a paramedic. He’s been happily doing his new job ever since.
In German, there’s a word for people like Schlegl who change their careers: ‘Quereinsteiger’ (or for women, ‘Quereinsteigerin’). Difficult to translate, it loosely means ‘lateral entrant’ – but lacks a true English equivelant. According to Alexander Zeitelhack, associate dean at the Berlin School of Business and Innovation, Quereinsteiger is a catch-all description for those who change into a job or industry they have no prior experience in.
The first part of the word, ‘quer’, can refer to going against the grain (such as the ‘Querdenker’ or ‘lateral thinker’ movement of protests against Germany’s coronavirus restrictions).
Formerly a television host, Tobias Schlegl became a Quereinsteiger, pivoting to a job as a paramedic (Credit: Tobias Schlegl)
And, as a result, it’s a term that comes with stigma. “In Germany, a country which is conservative and stubborn … the word has a prejudiced connotation,” explains Zeitelhack. “A Quereinsteiger is unconventional and not the person you’d expect for the job. There could be a sense of having failed before, and that’s why they are changing careers.”
But although going against work tradition in Germany has not been historically looked upon favourably – and changing careers can be a risk – there’s more interest than ever in becoming a Quereinsteiger. And some employers may even be changing their tune about embracing them – which could not only help make workers happier, but also revitalise a German economy on the brink of a crisis.
Germany’s dual education system of combined school and training means students apprentice in their chosen careers from about age 15 and up – and also that workers keep the same profession for a long time. Most Germans work the same job for about 11 years on average. There are benefits: the system sets up a young, highly skilled workforce (President Barack Obama praised the system in his 2013 State of the Union address: “Those German kids, they're ready for a job when they graduate high school”).
But there are also downsides. More than 80% of companies hire their trainees for full-time jobs, siloing young workers into a single establishment or position for many years, and not letting in those seeking a new future. And changing careers only becomes more difficult with time. “There’s no support for people who want to go back and study,” says Schlegl, who was required to train full-time for three years at a monthly salary of €800 ($975, £722) to become a paramedic. “I had good savings from my TV job, but someone who doesn’t simply would not be able to start over.”
Despite these obstacles, more Germans than ever are considering changing careers amid Covid-19. According to a September survey by Xing, a German work-centric social platform, a third of 1,500 workers in Germany, Austria and Switzerland say that finding meaning and pleasure at work has become more important since the pandemic.
A Quereinsteiger is unconventional and not the person you’d expect for the job – Alexander Zeitelhack
But jumping to become a Quereinsteiger takes gall. However, Düsseldorf-based career coach Chris Pyak says if he can do it, anyone can – that’s why his job is now helping others overcome such obstacles. At 17, he started out as a nurse (“My parents said it would be a stable profession”) but always dreamt of working in radio. “I wanted to do radio since I was five,” he says. “At night, I would listen to the announcers and their deep, rich voices.”
Going back to school at 22 and becoming a Quereinsteiger was “super hard”, he says. "I worked and studied seven days per week and 15 hours per day. There were times when I didn't eat because I had to choose between food and gasoline." But it took him down an unexpected, exciting career path: working at a radio station led to financial journalism and consulting for international companies like Microsoft. Such diverse experiences inspired him to write the book How to Win Jobs and Influence Germans.
But Pyak wasn’t done transforming. He’s become a Quereinsteiger again, now coaching other Quereinsteiger on getting the right skills and fashioning their CVs for Germany’s competitive job market.
In 2013 Tawfeeq Meeri fled his native Syria, abandoning a blossoming career as a teacher and linguist to become a software engineer (Credit: Tawfeeq Meeri)
A new group of Quereinsteiger
Native Germans changing positions are not the only ones considered to become Quereinsteiger. Immigrants who have been educated and trained outside Germany’s system are also counted among these ranks, says Zeitelhack, and experience similar roadblocks to employment.
However, it’s beneficial for companies to start embracing more Quereinsteiger. As Germany’s immigration surges, Quereinsteiger from other countries may be poised to revolutionise Germany’s workforce – and at just the right time. The German economy, the world’s fourth largest, is in crisis: in 10 years, when the post-war baby boomer generation retires, Germany will be short eight million workers, which may mean a 20% decrease in GDP, says Zeitelhack. “We have a huge movement right now of importing labour … We have a Quereinsteiger economy coming towards us.”
We have a huge movement right now of importing labour … We have a Quereinsteiger economy coming towards us – Zeitelhack
Programmer Tawfeeq Meeri is among this wave of Quereinsteiger entering the German workforce. He fled his native Syria in 2013, abandoning a blossoming career as a teacher and linguist to become a software engineer, a profession in demand in Germany. He learned coding at ReDi, a non-profit digital school in Berlin. Initially, he wasn’t was getting interviews with large companies without a computer science degree on his CV – but his teachers urged him to keep job hunting despite his Quereinsteiger classification.
Meeri eventually landed a position coding at a start-up. Young tech companies in Berlin like the one Meeri now works at are becoming sanctuaries for Quereinsteiger with multifaceted, unconventional career paths like his. “[Start-ups] require people who can combine communication and engineering, explain engineering to non-engineers and so on,” says Zeitelhack, who also works as an advisor for these young firms.
A Quereinsteiger workforce
Recently, politicians are even becoming aware of the benefits that can be harnessed from Quereinsteiger. The German government, helmed by perhaps the most famous Quereinsteigerin, Chancellor Angela Merkel (a research scientist before entering politics), is destigmatising career changes with an official webpage for Quereinsteiger featuring interviews and tips on changing careers.
Querensteigerin Uli Marschner, a former advertising agent, quit to start a small neighbourhood restaurant in Berlin called Häppies (Credit: Andreas Bohlender)
Still, Quereinsteiger have a way to go before Germany fully embraces them. A brighter future for the German economy can help – as well as the prospect for a happier, more passionate workforce.
For Meeri, he has not only entered the German workforce, but also created a deep connection to his work. And Quereinsteiger paramedic Schlegl now works ambulance shifts every other week in Hamburg, where he lives, and has found the fulfilment he was craving. Earlier this year, he hosted a podcast called Fighting Corona, in which he interviewed medics and shared his frontline experiences during the pandemic; he also wrote a novel based on his own paramedic work.
Uli Marschner, a former advertising agent who quit to start a small neighbourhood restaurant in Berlin, never looked back, either. “I do have some friends who envy me because they see that I love my job and they are working only for their weekends and holidays,” she says. “If you’re not happy, you’re not healthy. And I’m so happy now. I pinch myself every morning.”
“In five years, we will say, ‘[these people are] super Quereinsteiger – we need more of them!’” says Zeitelhack. “It will no longer be a word for black swans.”