Facing grim employment prospects, Spanish students seek jobs abroad

Story by Amanda Hoover

SALAMANCA – When Maria Abellàn began the long process of earning her degree in medicine, she was more focused on anatomy and physiology than the state of the economy.

Maria Alfonso (left) and Maria Abellan (right) are unsure whether they'll be able to work after finishing medical school in Spain's struggling economy.

Maria Alfonso (left) and Maria Abellàn (right) are unsure whether they’ll be able to work after finishing medical school in Spain’s struggling economy. Photo by Amanda Hoover.

“Every year, more and more people come here to study,” said Abellàn, a medical student at the University of Salamanca. Now just two years away from graduation, Abellàn is facing fierce competition for a job in an economy that can barely support those already in the workforce.

“I think we may go to another country in Europe or the USA to work,” said Abellàn, who, like all university students, is studying for her year-end exams in two weeks. She’s afraid that if she does leave, she’ll be forced to take her exams again in another language.

For the sixth year in a row, the unemployment rate in Spain has been going up. Now at nearly 26 percent overall, Spaniards are suffering and scared. Hardest hit are recent college graduates – more than 57 percent of whom are out of work, according to Eurostat, the statistical arm of the European Union. Many, like Abellàn, are planning to move because there are no options for them in their home country. Still more are what experts describe as “underemployed” – meaning they have jobs they are overqualified for.

“There is very little for them in Spain,” said Sebastian Royo, author of the 2013 book Lessons from the Economic Crisis in Spain. He warned that as a result, the country could face a sort of “brain drain” where its brightest and most qualified young workers flee in search of good jobs and better lives. Worse would be if they leave and never come back.

“It would be extremely helpful for them to get work experience, learn, network, live in other countries, learn the language, adapt to a new culture,” he said. But “if the crisis last longer and there are no opportunities for them to retrn, that could be a real loss of human capital.”

As little as a decade ago, the economy was booming as the country expanded. Banks thrived as the real estate market prospered after Spain joined the European Union, and unemployment fell to around 10 percent. In the zeitgeist of a bullish market, expansion was swift and mortgage loans were easily available, leading to a housing bubble. Over time, unsubstantiated housing prices and mounting defaults caused a drop in property values. That, coupled with Spain’s rising trade deficit, led to economic contraction – lower levels of consumer spending, struggling businesses and ultimately, higher unemployment.

These students at the University of Salamanca are among the many young people that face possible unemployment.

These students at the University of Salamanca are among the many young people who face possible unemployment. Photo by Amanda Hoover.

Recent graduates trying to enter the workforce have been hit particularly hard as they compete for entry-level positions with older, more experienced workers who have been left jobless.

It won’t be easy for Spanish graduates to pick up and move, leaving behind their families, friends, language and culture to embrace a new one. Some dread leaving and cling to their roots, but others see the crisis as a chance to start over.

“It’s very hard to get a job,” said Maria Serrano, a philology student, which is the study of historical texts, at the University of Salamanca. She’s an enthusiastic, articulate woman who speaks three languages and is looking forward to living abroad.

Many young people such as Serrano can only find temporary summer jobs in tourist hot spots along the coast, which pay very little and do not make use of their education. She’s had enough.

“I’m looking to get out. I don’t like it. That’s my first option. I would like to live in the USA or Germany,” said Serrano, who has a cousin working in public relations in New York who already traded her country for a career. Other than that, though, all of her family lives in Spain.

Vicente Gonzalez Martin, dean of the college of philology at the university, said his goal is now to specifically prepare students to go abroad if they can’t find what they need in their home country.

The college of philology has begun to make connections with programs in South Korea, for example, that allow students to teach English. “There is not one type of career track for students of philology, and many who studied here have jobs. They are not unemployed, but they are mostly employed abroad,” Martin explained through a translator.

But not everyone can find employment abroad easily.

David Lôpez Fontecha, a psychology student at the University of Salamanca, doesn’t plan to leave Spain, but isn’t sure he can find a job at home, either.

“I want to be a psychologist,” Fontecha said. “You need language to go out and work.”

Fontecha speaks broken English, but he knows it’s not enough to work in psychology abroad. Every summer he returns home to Nàjera in northeastern Spain to work in a factory alongside his family, but he hopes that the economy will pick up when he graduates so that he can work his dream job in Spain.

Proficiency in language – English and German are the most important – is a must, experts say. Without that, there’s little chance Spaniards will have an option to work abroad.

“Two of the main barriers would be the language and having a support network that can help them find jobs and settle in. I would say that the two most attractive host countries would be Germany – strong demand for Spanish engineers – and the UK because of the English,” said Royo, who teaches government at Suffolk University and also directs the university’s Madrid campus.

Frank Alzate didn’t plan to leave Spain to work. But after years of economic downturn, the languages student at the University of Salamanca doesn’t see another option.

“Every one of my friends thinks we will leave,” Alzate said. “It’s not working in Spain.”

Alzate has put years of work into learning English and how to teach the language to Spaniards, and he wants to get the best possible job for all of his efforts. If he stays in Spain, he could get by with continuing to work as a part-time club promoter, but he feels that is a waste of his skills.

When he graduates at this time next year, he suspects he’ll head to England to teach Spanish. “I love Spain. I don’t want to leave. No one wants to leave their countries,” said Alzate, “but there’s no work here.”


About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.

Posted on May 13, 2014, in Reporting from Salamanca and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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