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The ‘EasyJet Set’ lands in Berlin’s tech scene

Cafe in Kreuzberg, BerlinPhoto by Geraldine McGreevy—Flickr

Take a walk through Kreuzberg and Neukölln, two of Berlin’s trendiest neighborhoods, and you’ll notice the shush of Iberian Spanish emanating from cafes, bars, and circles of friends swilling drinks on canal bridges. What you hear may be a potent force in the future of Germany’s tech scene.

In recent years Berliners have become accustomed to the “EasyJet Set,” an epithet Germans use to describe backpackers who arrive in droves on low-cost airlines each weekend. Yet as unemployment soars at home, these travelers — many skilled workers from Italy and Spain — have decided to stick around. Unhappy with working conditions at home and lured by the appeal of a party capital, these techies see Berlin as a mecca for jobs, particularly in startups.

27-year-old Lucia Payo Molina moved to Berlin from Leganés, a city near Madrid, almost two years ago. She and her boyfriend Pablo, who is also from Spain, work as developers at the IT company Futurice.

Payo says jobs for developers in Spain are worse in terms of salary and work environment.

“When I went to a career fair at my university, the job offers I got for Germany paid 40,000 to 45,000 euro,” she says. “In Spain it was between 18,000 and 25,000 euro for the same kind of work.”

Payo says companies in Spain also pressure employees to work longer hours unpaid. “They tell you if you don’t do it there are five other people waiting for your job who will.”

29-year-old Giuseppe Colucci describes a similar situation in Italy, saying many of his friends work as freelancers, unpaid interns, or on temporary contracts. He came to Berlin over three years ago and recently accepted a job as an account manager at Greatcontent, a platform for connecting writers and companies who need text.

Employment numbers in Italy paint a grim picture. 12.3% of the population is unemployed and that statistic balloons to 43.7% when you focus on people under the age of 25, according to the EU statistics agency Eurostat. The situation is worse in Spain, where 24.5% of the overall population and a staggering 53.3% of youth are unemployed.

London and Berlin are known among programmers as the top European cities for startups. But compared to the sky-high prices of London, Berlin is dirt cheap. Spanish and Italian immigrants don’t necessarily arrive with job offers, but the cost of living is low enough that many can afford to stay until they find employment. Some take service-industry jobs in the meantime. Because all of these countries are part of the European Union, their citizens can work freely in any country without having to worry about the right visa or other immigration hurdles.

For many immigrants choosing between the U.K. and Germany, Berlin’s reputation as an adult playground also tips the scale in its favor.

28-year-old Pablo Villalba founded 8Fit, a mobile app for fitness and nutrition, and moved to Berlin from Barcelona in May. He agrees it’s cheaper to run a company in Berlin, but says he’s here for the lifestyle.

“I love Berlin. There are a lot of international people, it’s 24-hours.”

Yet the feeling isn’t entirely mutual, as many Germans object to neighborhood changes as immigrants arrive. 30-year-old Javier Rincon, who founded the Berlin-based service agency Proudsugar, says Germans’ original perception of the Spanish community “wasn’t so positive.”

Nonetheless, some businesses are cashing in. Tapas bars offer a taste of home, Italian- and Spanish-language news outlets target readers in their native language, and posters in Spanish advertise German courses. The Goethe Institut, an upmarket language school with branches all over the world, says they’ve seen an uptick in enrollment by Spanish and Italian students in Berlin over the past few years.

In Spain, the flight of young people has caused a drop in the country’s overall population in the past few years. Data from Spain’s official statistics institute shows over 79,000 Spanish citizens emigrated in 2013- an increase of 38.5% from the previous year. The most concentrated group to leave were young people in the 20-49 age range. The number of Spanish citizens registered as residents in Germany increased from 105,526 in 2008 to 135,539 in 2013, according to the German Federal Statistical Office. The Spanish embassy in Berlin said the true number could be higher, as many people do not register their residency. The embassy noted it has witnessed an increase in Spanish citizens in the city in recent years.

Many Spaniards in Berlin’s tech industry say those numbers reflect brain drain from their country.

“Going to work abroad should be a personal choice, not something you’re pushed to do,” Payo says. “Right now it’s more of the latter.”

Colucci agrees some people come to Berlin for the experience, but says the financial situation in Italy is the primary motivation. “The majority are moving because they’re kind of desperate,” he says.

Rincon hopes the entrepreneurial successes of expats in Berlin will change perceptions of the immigrants in Germany and also teach people back in Spain to look beyond the existing system for their careers.

“It’s good that hardworking people show we’re adding value,” he says.

Payo sums up the reputation that has drawn so many of her countrymen to Germany. “Berlin is one of the cheapest cities in Europe. It’s big, it’s young. You can get a job in a startup which is more fun than a big company because you’re closer to the business and closer to the people.”