ATHENS (Reuters) - As crisis squeezes the economy, more and more Greeks are looking abroad for work, stirring uncomfortable memories of an exodus in the mid-20th century to escape poverty and bouts of political turmoil.
Recruitment agencies report a rise in applicants for foreign jobs and some Greek graduates at universities abroad are trying to extend their stays — even though austerity in many other European countries means jobs are scarce.
Some fear a “brain drain” of the brightest from Greece’s 11 million population, joining a diaspora of more than 4 million. For others, looking abroad is a way of expressing discontent at deep cuts, but is unlikely to mean a move.
“I’m afraid to say that more and more Greeks are very actively looking for positions abroad,” said Venetia Koussia, head of the Manpower Greece recruitment agency.
Gikas Hardouvelis, chief economist at Eurobank EFG Group, predicted only a “marginal” impact from Greeks leaving, too small to dent unemployment that hit a 10-year high in the first quarter of 2010 at 11.7 percent of the workforce.
He predicted joblessness would peak at 15 percent as the government cuts wages and pensions and liberalizes the labor market — part of the austerity demanded in return for a 110 billion euro ($148 billion) bailout by the European Union and IMF for debt-ridden Greece.
“The brain drain was a problem for Greece throughout the ages ... Over the past 15 or 20 years nobody spoke of it because economic growth was very high,” he said.
In the mid-20th century, almost a million Greeks — mostly the rural poor — left the country to seek a better life.
A civil war in the wake of World War Two and a seven-year dictatorship by right-wing military governments, which ended in 1974, also spurred emigration, often to Germany, the United States or Australia. Greece joined the EU in 1981.
And Greeks have often been mobile — a Manpower survey from 2008 showed almost 90 percent would consider moving city or country. Koussia said that number was probably even higher with the crisis. Many Greeks study at foreign universities.
“The crisis ... is something I expected, since we have corrupt governments and politicians,” said Marina Magdalinou, a 39-year-old teacher of English who hopes to teach immigrants in England.
“The older I get, the fewer job opportunities I have here. That’s why I’m thinking of moving abroad.”
Doctors have often looked abroad, since there is an oversupply from medical schools. “Now with the crisis it’s even worse,” said Stathis Tsoukalis, head of the association of hospital doctors in Athens and Piraeus.
Petros Perselis, 23, an engineering graduate of Brown University in the United States, said that ever more of his Greek friends abroad were considering staying away.
“Most of them, I think, are edging toward moving abroad right now. That wasn’t the case two years ago,” he said. He was on vacation in Athens, and he said he had lined up an internship with a hedge fund in England.
Data on job seekers are largely anecdotal because Greeks are free to live and work anywhere in the EU. Greeks rank 12th by nationality among foreign job seekers who register with the EU job mobility portal EURES, with almost 9,000 applicants.
A EURES official estimated the number of Greeks had risen 15 to 20 percent since Greece’s debt crisis erupted in late 2009. Some embassies in Athens report more callers asking about jobs.
In Europe, Greeks work mainly in Germany, Britain and Cyprus, according to EU statistics agency Eurostat.
A survey in Thessaloniki published this month by the To The Point agency showed almost half of 590 young people asked would like to move abroad.
“The crisis has changed the stereotypes. Young people used to want to work in the public sector as a secure and low-risk choice, or would say they’d like to work in the family business,” said pollster Gely Doumbi of To The Point.
Greeks have historically prospered in international trade with a leading role in shipping back to ancient times. Many run small businesses, while tourism — from sun-drenched islands to the Acropolis in Athens — makes up almost a fifth of GDP.
Additional reporting by George Georgiopoulos and Konstantinos Ampatzis, editing by Mark Trevelyan