The equation seems straightforward. A generation of Spanish graduates is doing nothing with its education. Meanwhile, a continent that is laying the foundations of growth needs qualified workers.
The typical Spanish emigrant to Latin America today is about 30 years old, highly qualified and mostly without a family. Juan Arteaga is one. Aged 30, he has been living in Mexico City for five years. After studying journalism he tried to find work at an academic journal in Santander. “But it’s difficult in Spain. You can end up working as a waiter before you find work as a journalist.” Today he works for the consulting firm Llorente y Cuenca, specialising in social networking and online communication.
“In Spain, Latin America is seen as a little child who is still growing up,” Juan Arteaga explains. “But when you get here, you realise that the kid is really, really big. Mexico is a much larger market than Spain, thanks to its resources, its oil, energy, the size of the country, its 110 million people... It's a monster.”
Despite everything the press writes about this special period of prosperity and stability that Latin America is going through, the continent continues to surprise the Spaniards. “Many Spanish companies come and say they want to have a base in Mexico from which they can springboard to the United States. And then they grasp that Mexico is a huge market itself, and it’s growing fast.” So they give up on their planned jump to Uncle Sam and build a growth strategy for where they are, says the young Spaniard.
The Spanish banking sector understood this many years ago. Javier Lopez, president of the CreditServices financial company, explained a few months ago that a good chunk of the company’s activity had shifted to Brazil following the financial crisis: “Today, I’m managing finances in Latin America like I was doing in Spain five years ago."
"In Mexico, the world of work has nothing in common with Spain,” Juan Arteaga goes on. “You work really hard, and there is less time off. But hard work is rewarded. Someone who works well moves up fast. I landed here with no money, no network, and five years later I’m handling communications for Coca-Cola in its second global market. And all that by the age of 30.” It’s a career that’s unthinkable for most young people in Spain. Juan sums it up succinctly: “In Spain, I would still be living off scholarships.”
The Colombian consulate in Madrid is seeing an unprecedented increase in applications for work visas. In 2008, the consular services were handling an average of 45 visas a month. This year, the average has yet to drop below 70, counting all types of visas, including the special permit to create business contacts.
There is no shortage of Spaniards “exasperated by the situation at home, who have some capital and want to go abroad to invest,” explains Lucy Osorno, the consul. Her country is “quite generous” in granting visas to Spaniards, she says, and “it offers many opportunities for investment and work,” particularly in the infrastructure sector. Colombia, which needs Spanish investment, is helping enterprises get started by removing the condition that they employ a minimum number of Colombians.
Money, the desire to be active, Hispanic culture, lush natural landscapes, a demand for the Spaniards... Who would even want to move to Germany when there is Latin America? But other factors, such as distance and lack of social security, dull the lustre of the new Eldorado: emigration remains a possibility for only a minority of the unemployed Spaniards who might seem a natural fit, although it is becoming more popular. “Latin America is a very faraway continent, and some news coverage [of the violence] doesn’t help,” Juan Arteaga admits.
Within Europe, the Spanish emigrant is never more than four hours by plane from home. From Latin America, the nearest European destination is nine hours away. Pilar Pin, executive director of Spain’s Office for Expatriate Affairs, which studies the lives of Spanish expatriates around the world, singles out as problems the “wages, labour laws, poor coverage in case of unemployment and the health system… We are used to a free and universal system, and health care in the Americas is extremely expensive.”
The numbers are clear, and they show there is no wave of Spanish migration to Latin America. It’s not forlorn and hungry emigrants clutching cardboard suitcases that we’re seeing headed for the boats, but university students in search of experience.
Still, the fact remains that over the next decade there is a whole continent out there where Spanish is spoken and where the emigrants can put their hand to something. At the same time, back in Spain, a generation of young graduates finds itself stuck in economic agony. Those two realities are now beginning to come together.