Spain’s brain drain pain: young talent heads abroad for a better future

Spanish riot policemen arrest a woman on August 4, 2011 as they charged hundreds of "indignados" demonstrators protesting the closure of Madrid's main square, leaving a number of injured, witnesses said. Unemployment is a key issue both for the indignados and for this weekend's Spanish elections.

MADRID, Spain – When Paloma Ortega finished her Ph.D. in molecular biology in 2010, she thought she had every reason to be optimistic about her employment prospects.

Ten years of study had made her a specialist in her field. Her resume was bolstered by fluency in English and French, in addition to her native Spanish.

But 18 months on, she has a job she sees as a last resort: dispensing medication in a Madrid pharmacy. She earns a little over 1,000 euros ($1,380) per month, which is barely enough to live on.

“I suppose this job [has] some relation to my studies. But given my training, I feel I should be doing a much more specialized job,” said Ortega, 29. “I feel I’m wasting a decade’s studies.”

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Ortega has searched hard, but she says that in Spain there are no decent jobs for someone with her qualifications. So she is looking abroad, and even studying German in hopes of getting a job in Europe’s biggest economy.

In Germany, Ortega said, someone in her field with her qualifications would earn at least 3,000 euros ($4,160).

“The difference in salaries makes you realize how much or how little your work is valued,” she said. But she added that it was about more than money: “I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to fulfill myself professionally.”

Paloma is part of a generation of young Spaniards who feel shut out of the country’s labor market. Many have post-graduate qualifications, have travelled widely and speak foreign languages. Yet they are unable to find work that pays well and matches their abilities. Going abroad has become an attractive alternative to the jobless queue.

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This Sunday, November 20, is election day in Spain. Citizens are expected to vote in a new conservative government headed by Mariano Rajoy. The conservative candidate has made job-creation the center of his campaign, pledging tax breaks for companies that hire new workers and incentives for Spaniards to start up small businesses. Rajoy’s double-digit lead in the polls suggests that focusing on work has paid off.

After a construction-driven boom that lasted a decade and drew millions of immigrants, Spain’s labor market has suffered along with the rest of its economy in recent years. With a high public deficit and the IMF forecasting growth of just 0.7 percent this year, in the summer there was even speculation that Spain was in line for a bailout from the European Union, after Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

But more relevant for the likes of Ortega is an unemployment rate of 21 percent, the highest in Europe. Youth unemployment hovers just under 45 percent.

The open nature of the EU’s labor market, whereby residents are free to travel to and work in any country, is encouraging Spain’s young people to do just that. Some politicians are also selling this as a good idea.

Earlier this year, the German government said its country lacked trained professionals in certain areas, such as engineering and architecture. Madrid’s Goethe Institute, a German cultural center, immediately reported a 25-percent increase in Spaniards registering for language classes.

Like Ortega, Blanca Lopez is studying German, because she thinks Germany could be where her professional future lies. Lopez is only 21, and still studying for an engineering degree in Madrid. She says that even before they graduate, her fellow students are already planning to build careers abroad.

“A few years ago, pretty much everyone who graduated in engineering in Spain went straight into a job, but not any longer,” Lopez said. “There are very few job offers in my sector, which is industrial engineering.”

She added: “It’s not even just about the money, it’s being able to do a job that I want to do.”

In the 1960s, during the right-wing dictatorship of Francisco Franco, 1.5 million Spaniards left the country to seek work, mainly in northern Europe. However, the current migration phenomenon is still in its infancy and differs in a major way.

“Before, it was unskilled workers who generally went abroad, but now there is a migration of qualified workers — people with a university education,” said Carmen Gonzalez, senior researcher in migration at the Elcano Institute in Madrid. There are no figures showing the number of Spaniards leaving to seek better job prospects, although authorities have reported an increase in Spaniards registering in foreign consulates.

Countries such as Germany, France and Britain are natural choices for restless Spaniards, due to those countries’ large economies. But Spain’s next-door-neighbor Portugal, with a lower GDP per capita, is now a destination for many Spanish doctors, who can earn more there.

Gonzalez pointed to a large increase in the number of Spanish university graduates in recent years as a reason for the white-collar job shortfall, along with the economic crisis. An oversupply of highly educated young Spaniards has left many fighting for the same jobs and driven wages down. The difference between wages for unskilled jobs and skilled jobs is much less than in most other European nations.

But many young Spaniards are looking beyond Europe.

Adriana Gimeno, 29, is a psychologist who was laid off several months ago. She now has a part-time post working for the Madrid regional government’s health department, but she expects to lose that job in December due to spending cuts.

Gimeno speaks Portuguese and is considering a move to Brazil.

“In Brazil, they’re paying good salaries. I can earn three times there what I earn here, even doing an administrative job,” she said.

Those who have already left Spain in search of work have few regrets.

Alvaro Gutierrez Uzquiza, 32, is doing cutting-edge cancer research at the University of Pennsylvania. “When this job came up in 2009, the crisis had kicked in [in Spain] and the future didn’t look good there,” he said. “I’m afraid to ask my friends there how things are going when we talk on the phone, because the news seems to get worse and worse.”

The United States is a common destination for Spanish academics, particularly scientists. Biochemist Yolanda Otero, 31, is one year into a research fellowship at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. She says there’s “no way” she’s going to find similar work in Spain, especially given cuts made to research budgets.

An exodus of professionals inevitably raises concerns for the country’s long-term future. Experts say the problem reflects badly on Spain’s economic structure.

“We need more multinationals and more firms that are intensive in human capital,” said Ismael Sanz, an economist at Rey Juan Carlos University in Madrid. “Another possibility would be for young people to start their own business, but in this country we don’t have much of an entrepreneurial character.”