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For Spanish youth, a hard choice to go abroad for work

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After years of savage cuts, Spain’s job market finally seems to be improving. In the second quarter of the year, net employment increased by 192,400, the first increase in six years. At the same time, the unemployment rate dropped from 25.9% to 24.5%. And a Grant Thornton employer survey found that 28% of Spanish companies were planning to hire while only 7% were planning cuts.

But Viola Hoffmann would disagree with that diagnosis. When Hoffmann’s Cologne, Germany-based recruiting firm, Accedera, posted job listings for 10 social educators to aid people with disabilities in Germany, she got 600 applicants from Spain.

“We were quite surprised and a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of applications we received every day,” Hoffmann says.

In the years immediately after Spain’s 2008 economic collapse, moving to Germany became a means of survival for many Spaniards. Migration from Spain to Germany increased from 15,515 in 2007 to 37,683 in 2012, and that flow surged by 39% during the first half of 2013.

“Surely, if things were better here, I wouldn’t be looking overseas,” says Fabián Prieto Sánchez, a 30-year-old with a graduate degree from the University of Murcia who is applying for jobs listed by Accedera.

The recent positive economic news would suggest a coming slowdown in Spanish emigration. But Spain’s economy has primarily generated unskilled service positions; over a third were in the tourism industry. That leaves many of the country’s educated youth with a tough choice.

“The fundamental problem in Spain is that it generates a lot of highly qualified workers with university degrees, but the system doesn’t need them,” says José García Montalvo, a professor of economics at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabre University. “If you’re a university grad, you have two options: compete for a low qualification job, or go to another country where there is demand. A telecommunications engineer goes to Germany because it doesn’t make much sense that he serves beer in a bar [in Spain].”

Marcela Sánchez Aguirre, 26, faces that dilemma. After graduating with a social education degree from the University of Valencia, she’s been unable to find a job in her specialty—working with people with cerebral palsy—so she is applying for jobs offered by Accedera.

“I wanted to put the knowledge I’d gained into practice but couldn’t find a job here,” she says. “There were a lot of cuts because of the crisis.”

The outflow of people like Sánchez has led to worries that Spain’s unemployment problem will morph into a brain drain, as young Spaniards take their university educations abroad and discover the benefits of working in wealthy countries like Germany.

“What you notice most of all is the good work conditions. People work harder here, but they respect the work schedule, the pay is better, there are more protections,” says one 26-year-old woman from Mallorca who moved to Germany in 2013 (who requested her name not be used because she is in the middle of a job search). “Once you’re out and have a German salary, returning to Spain is always a step down. I imagine that in a few years, many Spaniards will be staying for undefined lengths of time.”

Of course, living in Germany is not all roses. To curb so-called welfare tourism, Germany has considered giving migrants a limit of between three and six months to find a job or leave. Some young Spaniards have claimed they have been scammed by agencies that brought them to Germany on work-study contracts.

And then there’s the challenge of anti-Spanish prejudice. Maria Cos Espuña, 26, graduated with a law degree from Pompeu Fabre University in 2011 and moved to Germany in April 2012 to be with her boyfriend. She soon found a job at a small law firm in Oberndorf am Neckar. When she asked for a promised raise the next year—she’d started at a low salary because of her weak German skills—the owner turned her down.

“They thought they could pay me half of what my colleagues made. Half,” she says. “And then he said Spaniards aren’t productive. It made me really angry.”

Still, Cos plans to stay in Germany when her job ends in September. She says she hasn’t encountered broad-based prejudice and she would like to work in other parts of Germany or another German-speaking country.

Turning the emigration tide will require more than a mild pickup in Spain’s economy. According to Álvaro Sanmartín, a consulting partner at Grant Thornton and founder of Alinea Global, even with 2.5% annual GDP growth starting in 2016—an optimistic figure—it would take until 2027 to return to the level of pre-crisis employment in Spain.

Getting big growth would require a depreciation of the Euro, Sanmartín says, which in turn will help Spain’s important export sector and lead to higher salaries for educated workers.

“If the Euro moves, I think Spain will be able to pay competitive salaries again, and because of that, the Brain Drain would be lower,” he says. “If that doesn’t happen, I think there is a real danger of losing human capital.”

For now, the eagerness to emigrate continues unabated.

“[Applicants] have been asking, ‘When can I come?’ the first time we talked,” says Accedera’s Hoffman. “I had to slow them down. They would have gotten on the next plane.”