Europe’s malaise pushes out workers

Published 27 December 2012 05:14, Updated 04 January 2013 14:14

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Europe’s malaise pushes out workers

Data from the Brazilian Foreign Ministry show a sharp increase since 2010 in the number of work visas granted by Brazil’s consulates in Portugal. Photo: Reuters

Tiago Lambuca left Portugal to search for work in Brazil as an architect, but the decision to emigrate was about more than earning a wage.

It was a generational choice, of a growing region over one he feels is exhausted; of a place where he could build a career over one where people his age often must skate from one temporary job to another.

He said he was raised with a set of expectations familiar in the developed world: Study hard, learn a technical trade like architecture, and the path to a solid standard of living and a comfortable retirement would be set. In today’s Europe, he said, that narrative is urgently out of date. Some of his school classmates are narrowing their vision, settling on makeshift jobs like furniture repair. Others search the globe for a better foothold.

“You can find work in Portugal ... but nothing that offers a career,” the 29-year-old said as he sipped juice in an open-air cafe in the shadow of Sao Paulo’s art museum. “It all happened very fast. I came over for two weeks. In two days I had settled on a job” and also enrolled in an MBA program.

After five years of slow growth or recession and an increasing sense of Europe’s limits, Lambuca is not alone. He and other young Portuguese professionals have begun turning to Brazil, a former Portuguese colony that shares the language, as a culturally familiar way to escape their home nation’s doldrums.

He and others recently interviewed in Brazil were not unemployed at home. They all spoke of internships, year-long work stints in other euro-zone countries, and other jobs they had held despite rising regional unemployment. But they were deeply disenchanted with the opportunities that Portugal, Spain or other European nations held for them to build their careers, and they felt the continent had become a dead end.

Exact statistics are unavailable. Data from the Brazilian Foreign Ministry show a sharp increase since 2010 in the number of work visas granted by Brazil’s consulates in Portugal. But several groups of possible Portuguese émigrés are not captured in that information, including those who get a visa from a Brazilian consulate in another country, and the probably large group who arrive on tourist visas but later switch their status after finding a job or enrolling in a college or university.

The anecdotal accounts of people like Lambuca and other recent émigrés suggest a steady movement of skilled Portuguese looking to resettle in one of the world’s dynamic emerging markets — a place where commodity wealth, an energy boom and upcoming events like the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament and 2016 Olympic Games are creating a shortage of engineers, architects, consultants and other skilled labor.

They speak, not without misgiving, of a “brain drain” from their home country; they fill Facebook groups with other 20- and 30-something professionals who also recently arrived; they field e-mails, sometimes several a day, from friends and classmates who want to join them.

Joana Oliveira, also an architect, said that over two years here, she has gotten a steady increase in responsibility. The office she works for was recently reorganized to rely more on younger staffers like her to contribute to the initial creative design work, giving her opportunities she was likely to have gotten only much later at a more staid European firm.

She also spoke of Europe’s economic crisis as upending long-held assumptions about how her life and career would evolve. Anyone in Europe with ambition, she said, needed “to change the way you think and go somewhere else.”

The stories of people like Lambuca and Oliveira are part of a larger rewiring of the world economy that is taking place as a result of the euro zone’s economic crisis. The threat of breakup, renewed recession and dim prospects for future growth have led investors to reshuffle trillions of dollars around the globe and have caused companies to relocate offices and reshape strategies.

Some European banks have retrenched behind national borders, abandoning outside investment plans and whole lines of business like trade finance in Asia. Others have refocused their strategy outward: Firms like Madrid’s Banco Santander now earn just a small portion of their profits in Spain and instead have focused their time and energy on places like Brazil and Mexico, where the company now makes most of its money.

The investment banking arm of Portugal’s Banif recently relocated one of its corporate finance executives from Lisbon to Sao Paulo to better scout opportunities and serve the bank’s growing client base in Brazil.

Business consultant Pedro Neves said that after four years at a small firm in Lisbon, he decided he needed to leave Portugal to advance.

“I came for a holiday and did some interviews and had two proposals from two companies” before his vacation was over, said Neves, 27. He now works for KPMG in Rio de Janeiro, where his university studies in sports marketing will help the company as the 2016 Olympics approach. “It is an opportunity to be in a market where new things will happen, outside Europe.”

Even seemingly durable trends can, of course, reverse. Early in Europe’s crisis, problems in the banking sector intensified when U.S. money market funds pulled out, a move that deprived European banks of what had been a stable source of short-term funding. After recent decisions by the European Central Bank lowered the risks of a larger currency union crack up, that money has begun to trickle back. Large liabilities owed by the central banks of weaker nations like Spain to that of Germany are also starting to decrease, a sign that money has stopped flowing out of those troubled countries.

But there’s also little question that the tide of capital and people leaving the euro zone shows a certain dysfunction in the currency union — a design flaw that has created an unnerving degree of instability in the global economy.

In setting up the currency region, the euro’s designers felt that the vast differences among the member nations would smooth out over time — that Greece and Portugal would eventually be competitive with, say, Germany or the Netherlands. Investment capital, economic theory predicted, would move from the more developed nations of the currency zone to the less developed ones — taking advantage of lower labor costs and the fact that less-developed areas generally offer greater returns on investment than more-established areas. In addition, workers were expected to move from places of high unemployment and lower wages to countries where jobs were available and wages were rising.

Not enough of either has happened within the euro zone. The fact that labour is leaving the region may help in the short run: Each Portuguese or Greek citizen who emigrates means one less person competing for the available jobs; émigrés may also send money back home in the form of remittances, an important source of foreign income for some nations.

But the long-run effect may be less helpful if educated young adults like Lambuca take their skills, ambition and earning potential somewhere else. Recent immigrants to Brazil say they have arrived with a range of intentions — from short-term assignments to help their current employer to open-ended hopes of remaining in Brazil permanently.

Patricia Cardoso said she loved her first job out of college, working on a Lisbon-based reality television show. But she also outgrew it quickly and realized the next steps would be difficult in an economy where there was little turnover among senior employees and little chance for new workers to advance.

“It was always the same thing: Start here and you can have an internship for six months. So I decided one night I was leaving the country. That I will never get a job here.”

She is now working as a director’s assistant on television projects and feature films, sharing an apartment near Ipanema Beach.

“I have no plans to go back,” said Cardoso, 25. “I love this place. The beach, the sun, the people are friendly, language is not an issue, and the opportunities are here.”

Washington Post

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