* Economic boom draws migrant workers fleeing Europe's woes
* Foreign professionals in demand from mining, industry
* Troubled education system struggles to surmount skills gap
* Immigration law reform aims to cut red tape, ease hiring
By Anthony Esposito and Moises Avila
SANTIAGO, Jan 25 As the debt crisis raged across
the euro zone last year, Madrid-native Laura Tapias and her
partner found themselves out of work. With nearly one in four
Spaniards unemployed, their prospects looked grim.
After four months of fruitless job-hunting at home, she
headed across the Atlantic to Santiago with her boyfriend who
had got a job in Chile's capital city.
Two days later she found work as a hydrogeologist at an
environmental consulting firm in the Santiago business district
dubbed 'Sanhattan' for its resemblance to Manhattan's skyline.
She isn't the only foreigner or Spaniard to recently be hired
"I dropped off my resume and the next day they said 'yes' at
the interview. It happened so fast I couldn't believe it," said
the mild-mannered Tapias, 33, adding that she has received a
warm welcome in Chile.
Across the street, construction workers are putting the
finishing touches to retailer Cencosud's 984-foot
(300-meter) Costanera Center. The complex, which boasts South
America's tallest skyscraper and largest mall, is testament to
the nation's economic vitality.
A buoyant economy, low unemployment and rising wages have
been luring foreign professionals to the copper-exporting Andean
nation of 16.6 million people, which is in desperate need of
Chile's economic success story, one shared by many of its
commodities-rich neighbors, is turning the tables on many years
of migration by Latin Americans hoping to make their fortune in
former colonial power Spain and other wealthy European nations.
EUROPEAN BRAIN DRAIN
Despite their much larger economies and populations,
regional giants Brazil and Mexico received roughly the same
number of legal immigrants as Chile between 2003 and 2010,
according to a report by the Organization of American States,
the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
(OECD), and the Inter-American Development Bank.
Peruvians, Bolivians, Argentinians, Colombians and other
Latin Americans got the lion's share of Chile's work visas last
year, though Europeans received them at a faster pace.
With Spain stuck in its second recession since 2009,
Spaniards are at the forefront of a wave of Europeans heading to
Chilean visas for residents of western European nations grew
39 percent through October and surged 84 percent for Spanish
nationals, according to government data. Many of them are for
skilled professionals like Tapias.
Chile's attraction is an economic growth rate expected to
reach up to 5.25 percent in 2013, its fourth straight year of
sturdy increase following an expansion in gross domestic product
(GDP) of 6 percent in 2011 and 6.1 percent in 2010.
FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND NEW JOBS
Over the last decade, the number of work visas being granted
by Chile has risen by an average 25 percent per year and demand
for more foreign professionals has spiked.
That has prompted an overhaul of the country's clunky and
outdated immigration legislation, which dates from the early
days of the Pinochet dictatorship. The idea is to allow greater
agility to recruit skilled workers from abroad.
Forecast mining investments of $100 billion over the next 10
to 12 years alone will require a fresh generation of skilled
laborers to fill some 100,000 new direct jobs and another
300,000 indirect jobs, the influential Sonami mining association
said this month.
Not having the people, foreign or local, to fill available
posts could crimp economic growth and productivity, employment
analysts say, pointing to similar woes suffered by regional
Brazil's government said last year it was exploring ways to
ease immigration rules in order to attract up to 10 times more
foreign professionals to spur economic growth.
A lack of skilled workers is one of many bottlenecks that
brought the world's sixth-largest economy to a near standstill
in 2012, a fate Chile hopes to avoid.
"Chile realizes that without the help of immigrants it'll be
very difficult to fill the number of jobs required for certain
investments and to ultimately boost the economy," Mario
Cassanello, the head of Chile's Immigration Office told Reuters.
"We need laws that will give us more flexibility and will
reduce bureaucracy," he added.
FULL EMPLOYMENT VS MASS UNEMPLOYMENT
Chile's immigration reform bill aims to cut red tape, create
a ministerial committee to define migratory policy, and allow
the use of immigration quotas in order to step up the inflow of
certain specialties, such as surgeons, when needed.
It would also aim to ease the granting of visas to work in
labor-starved regions, such as Chile's mining-intensive north.
The government is also mulling modifying a law that
restricts companies with more than 25 employees from having
foreigners make up more than 15 percent of their payroll.
"In Chile, the problem isn't that there's an excess of
workers. On the contrary, there's a shortage of workers,"
Finance Minister Felipe Larrain said late last year.
Chile's unemployment fell to a near three-year low of 6.2
percent for the September-November period.
"These levels are close to full employment," Larrain added.
Labor demand has boosted salaries, with wages rising an
average 6.5 percent in the 12 months to November.
In contrast, Spain's unemployment rate soared to 26 percent
in the fourth quarter, the highest level since measurements
began in the 1970s.
"How can you tell it's getting difficult (to hire workers)?
Companies are asking for more work permits, so they can recruit
people from abroad," said Jonas Prising, president of global
staffing services company ManpowerGroup.
"Countries like Australia, Canada, Singapore, Panama in
some cases, they understand that they don't have enough of a
labor pool. They also understand that if you have enough skilled
labor, companies will invest in your country, you can continue
to grow," he added.
THE COST OF INEQUALITY
Fuelling the worker void in Chile is an ill-equipped
education system which is too costly for many students and has
proved incapable of meeting the demands of a growing economy.
Limited access to quality education means income inequality
has barely budged in Chile since 1990, making the country the
worst ranked in that category among members of the OECD.
Chile spent $6,863 per student in tertiary education in
2010. The OECD average was $13,728.
Fed up with the situation, students have staged massive
protests demanding an education overhaul. The protests pummeled
the popularity rating of conservative President Sebastian Pinera
and helped usher in a tax reform to help pay for increased
public education spending.
"It's going to take a decade or so before you see any type
of payoff. In the near term, (workers) are going to have to come
from somewhere given that there isn't a real wealth of skilled
workers in Chile," said Michael Henderson, economist at Capital
Economics in London. "People from overseas are going to be the
best short-term bet."
It is not just high-skilled jobs that employers are having
difficulty filling. About nine percent of farmers polled by
industry group National Agricultural Society said they will
leave some produce unharvested next season due to a shortage of
"Every year the problem increases," Ronald Bown, head of the
ASOEX fruit exporters' association said.
However, the flow of people seeking opportunities in the
South American nation -- that has so far defied the odds of a
sharp slowdown -- shows no signs of letting up.
Tapias says she had little chance of getting a job in Spain.
She laments having fewer vacation days in Chile and misses her
"I don't really have enough time to visit Spain. I'm sure my
family will come to visit though," said Tapias, who has made
Chilean friends but spends most of her time with fellow
Asked when she might head home, she said: "We don't have a
return ticket ... we're not sure if we're going back."