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Spanish youth diaspora comes home to opportunity, insecure jobs

[MADRID] It took Maite Alvarez, a Stanford University-trained immunologist, seven years to plot her return to Spain.

"Coming home has been a very positive experience," said Alvarez, 36, who returned in March to take up a post at the University of Navarra's cancer immunology lab in Pamplona. "The idea was always to come back to Spain to be close to family and continue my research."

Twenty straight quarters of expansion is giving talented young Spaniards a reason to return home, picking up the thread of disrupted professional lives enriched by the skills and experience gathered abroad. Statistics show Spain is reaching an inflection point: it's on the cusp of becoming a net immigration nation once again after a decade in which the country's economic crash meant tens of thousands left in search of better job opportunities.

That said, for many returnees the homecoming can be rough as wages are capped by Spain's high unemployment -- the jobless rate, although down from a peak in 2013 of 26.9 per cent, is at 14.5 per cent, with joblessness for the youth at 38.6 per cent. The low-pay work has given rise to gallows humor with a Twitter feed called Mierda Jobs that lists "shitty" jobs.

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Still, the recovery is allowing companies like Banco Santander SA to begin hiring again. The euro area's largest bank is attracting talent -- especially in digital -- to its operations in its home country, Chairman Ana Botin said.

‘Best and Brightest'

Santander "is creating new opportunities for the best and brightest new talent, while also making it possible for those who left in the past to come home," Botin said in an email. "In the past, top data scientists and artificial intelligence experts had to leave Spain to find leading-edge projects."

Botin listed a handful of names the bank has poached to beef up research in artificial intelligence and cyber security from companies such as Vodafone Group PLC, BlackRock Inc., and JPMorgan Chase & Co. Among them is Sara Perez, 31, who spent six years in London honing her skills as an information security analyst. She was lured back to Spain to take up the post of head of information security at Openbank, Santander's online lender, in Madrid.

Cyber-security awareness has "created new opportunities for people in my profession to pursue more specialist career paths here in Spain that would have been much harder to come by five years ago," Perez said, adding that she was happy she got to work for a while in London, garnering new skills and experience.

About 190,000 Spaniards left Spain between the start of the crisis and end-2017. Working-age returnees will ease the pressure on a social security system hurt by the ageing workforce shrinking 0.3 per cent a year, said Maeva Cousin, an economist at Bloomberg Intelligence.

Fixing Bottlenecks

"Spanish citizens who had settled abroad during the crisis are starting to return, and net inflows of foreign citizens are increasing," Cousin said. "With unemployment now close to its structural rate, this boost to Spanish labor force will reduce the risk of bottlenecks in the labor market and will help maintain strong growth for longer."

Anna Herranz, director of career services at IE University, says that for the past 18 months she's been receiving inquiries from alumni abroad looking for opportunities to return home. Unlike in the pre-crisis days, when finance reigned, the demand now is for technology, especially in data analysis and digital transformation, she said, adding a note of caution.

"Unemployment is still high," she said. "If you come back, don't expect to find work in a month."

Like many European economies, Spain suffers from a mismatch of skills and jobs. In 2015, 22 per cent of workers in Spain were overqualified for their jobs, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development says. Many Spaniards are also forced to take jobs unrelated to their training or studies.

Gallows Humor

"This share of overlap is one of the highest among countries surveyed, and suggests costs to individuals and society in lost human capital investment," the OECD report concluded.

Alejandra de la Fuente, 24, a journalist, set up Mierda Jobs to detail what she considers abusive employment terms.

Recent jobs listed include a post for a driver in Madrid earning a base salary of up to 850 euros (S$1,325) a month for an 11-hour day. A Mexican restaurant in the capital is seeking waiters for shift work, offering from 1 euro to 1.60 an hour. "If you like good tacos, this is the place for you," according to the advert.

"You can't live in Madrid with dignity on these types of wages," de la Fuente said.

Still, homesick citizens are returning.

Marc Chaler, 25, who left Spain for the UK in 2015 to study English and seek work, is back. After working in a restaurant and taking a catering job in an Oxford University college, he returned in the summer and landed a programming job in Valencia earlier this month.

"I missed my friends and family and my plan was always to pursue my career in Spain," Chaler said. "I'm just beginning my career and I'm not asking for a big salary -- what I want is an opportunity to get off to a good start."

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