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Greece dogged by brain drain

Young Greeks leave home to find employment.

A statue of ancient philosopher Socrates is seen opposite a Greek flag in Athens, April 23, 2010. (Yiorgos Karahalis/Reuters)

ATHENS, Greece — Danae Lebesopoulou was delighted when she was accepted for a four-month work experience placement at an internet TV startup in Athens. She expected her years spent studying Arabic and Persian, as well as her master's in Middle Eastern Studies from Scotland’s Edinburgh University, to pay off.

But Lebesopoulou soon realized that little was being asked of her aside from translating the occasional article in the English-language press and doing a minimal amount of fact-checking. Though she had expected to make some money, she was soon told that her work was “voluntary and unpaid.”

“As a newcomer, you can’t just sign up to the journalists’ union and they’ll protect you,” said Lebesopoulou. “The deal you’re given by the boss is: ‘I’ll take you as a trainee, no pay and the union won’t have your back. If you don’t like it, you’re free to go.’”

Though harsh, Lebesopoulou’s experience is increasingly typical of those entering Greece’s labor markets. New legislation introduced as part of government austerity measures intended to save some $40 billion over three years will limit salaries in a public sector employee's first year to under 600 euros ($740) a month.

So increasingly well-educated young Greeks are taking their expensively acquired skill-sets outside Greece and seeking work in northern Europe and America.

"It's not always an issue of choice, but often one of a lack of choice," said Kalliopi Amygdalou, a student at the London School of Economics. "We don't usually prefer going abroad, quite simply we can't find work in Greece."

According to new research released this month by the University of Macedonia, 84 percent of those who studied abroad decided to remain outside Greece. Just half of them bothered even to search for work in Greece — hardly surprising when one in three graduates of foreign universities who try to stay in Greece remain unemployed.

Unemployment among 18- to 30-year-olds is about 25 percent and does not decrease among college graduates. In daytime, idle youth fills Athens’ cafes and bars. At night, many of them return to their parents’ homes, where they continue living into their 30s, staving off costly pursuits such as getting married and having children.

Government-led reforms of employment law will result in entrants into the job market earning a reduced “trainee salary” of 600 euros a year.

Young Greeks have long been one of Europe’s best-educated and least-appreciated workers. Returning to Greece from expensive colleges in Britain, the United States and western Europe, they collide against a culture of patriarchy and entrenched interests that blocks them from earning salaries appropriate to their skills.