Greece Brain Drain Hampers Recovery From Economic Crisis

Greece Brain Drain Hampers Recovery From Economic Crisis

A man sitting in a coffee shop reads a newspaper in central Athens, Greece, on Aug. 20, 2018, as Greece exits from recovery mode.

SourceAyhan Mehmet/Getty

Why you should care

Despite Greece’s economic recovery, few among those who left the country plan to return anytime soon. 

Angeliki Tziaka moved to the U.K. soon after the Greek government began cutting pensions and public sector wages in the first bailout program agreed upon with international creditors in 2010. She felt the choice was clear: work abroad or risk a long spell of unemployment at home. “I’d recently graduated in medicine and I wanted to do my specialization abroad because the future [of health care] in Greece was looking so uncertain,” Tziaka says.

Eight years later, the 33-year-old works as a consultant psychiatrist in the U.K.’s National Health Service. For the moment she does not plan to look for a job in Greece. “I thought I’d be away for perhaps two years, then the crisis would be over,” she adds. “But it didn’t turn out that way and now I don’t know when things will be stable again.”

As Greece prepares to exit its final international bailout this week, in a sign that a return to economic normality is around the corner, the number of educated Greeks who do not see a future in the country is still one of the biggest impediments to its long-term recovery and sustainability.

“The brain drain is clearly having a negative effect on Greece’s economic prospects in the short term,” says George Pagoulatos, a professor of European politics and economics at the Athens University of Economics and Business. “The question is whether this pool of increasingly skilled and internationalized Greeks will eventually return and help boost the country’s long-term growth potential.”

There are very few signs at the moment that we’ll get them [doctors who migrated] back.

George Patoulis, president, Athens Medical Association

Between 350,000 and 400,000 Greeks, mostly in their 20s and 30s, have immigated — mainly to other EU countries — since 2010. More than two-thirds are university graduates and many have postgraduate qualifications, according to Emmanouil Pratsinakis, a researcher at Oxford University funded by Greece’s Onassis Foundation.

“Medicine, engineering or IT graduates whose field of study is in abundant demand in destination countries, form a big segment of the migrant population,” Pratsinakis says. “Hotel managers and chefs with experience in the luxury segment of Greece’s tourist industry are also wanted.”

So many doctors have left since 2010 that the cash-strapped health service faces a shortfall of 8,000 doctors, says George Patoulis, president of the Athens Medical Association. “The country has lost more than 18,000 doctors, not only new graduates but established specialists .… There are very few signs at the moment that we’ll get them back.”

For middle-class Greeks, postgraduate study abroad was long a way to get ahead in the country’s small community of professional managers. That changed as the economy boomed in the early 2000s following the eurozone’s creation and opportunities for young professionals increased. Greeks were among the least mobile Europeans, especially when it came to job changes that involved long-distance moves, comparative studies showed.

The crisis shattered hopes that the domestic job market would continue to expand — and brought signs that the pattern of short stints abroad might change into something more permanent. “Immigration has become an option to be considered, and family and friends react much more positively than in the past to decisions of friends and relatives to leave,” Pratsinakis says.

Nor are Greeks abroad in a hurry to get back. According to an EU survey carried out last year in London and the Netherlands, less than 10 percent of Greek migrants planned to return in the next three years and only 20 percent wanted to do so in the longer term.

Tonia Stoumpou is one who abruptly changed her plans when the crisis struck. She had been expecting to return from London after a master’s degree in supply chain management. Anticipating a struggle to find a job in Greece, she decided to stay in the U.K. and work “for a couple of years.”

The pull of Greece weakened as the crisis dragged on, she says.

“I worked for one, then another big company with a global presence. I really enjoy my current job, there are opportunities to advance and I feel settled in London,” Stoumpou says. “I’d like to work in Greece eventually, possibly in our family business, but I’m not in a hurry.”

Thodoris Messinis, an IT specialist at a Swiss bank in Geneva, was recently offered the chance to join a fintech company in Athens. “The salary offer was surprisingly high, but when I considered what I’m doing now — leading a team of software developers, learning how to be a manager, living in an orderly European country — I decided I’m better off here,” Messinis says.

Moving to Qatar early in the crisis, then taking a postgraduate degree and working in the U.S. before settling in Switzerland, “made me aware of the opportunities of being abroad,” Messinis says.

After peaking in 2013, departures from Greece have gradually decreased, while a small number of migrants who left early in the crisis are returning. “Their savings and experience allow them to plan their repatriation on better terms,” Pratsinakis says.

But huge gaps remain, nowhere more so than in the health service, where deep spending cuts and early retirements have left regional and island hospitals struggling to fill specialist positions. Newly qualified doctors are among the most eager to leave, says Patoulis.

“Greece can’t offer salaries or working conditions to compete with state health systems in northern Europe,” Patoulis says. “And our private clinics have taken a hit because of the sharp drop in incomes.”

Since 2010, specialized employment agencies and individual hospitals in Germany have undertaken recruiting drives in Greece, offering jobs that include six months of free language training.

Grigoris Markopoulos, a cardiologist who has been in Germany for six years, says he thought hard about moving because “many of my friends and relatives felt that the German government was making austerity unnecessarily harsh for the Greeks.”

“But I felt relieved to be offered a job with a career path in another European country,” he says.

Markopoulos has worked his way up from a junior hospital post to a senior position in a Hamburg clinic. “It was hard at first because almost nobody spoke English in my first hospital, so I really had to work hard at mastering the language,” Markopoulos says. “I feel in control of my career at this point. I still think that I’ll come back to Greece once the economy is flourishing, but that may be some years away.”

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By Kerin Hope

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