Class of 2012: Young Europeans trapped by language

Wednesday - 12/5/2012, 10:15am EST

By FRANK JORDANS and ALAN CLENDENNING
Associated Press

MADRID (AP) - Maria Menendez, a 25-year-old caught in Spain's job-destroying economic crisis, would love to work in Germany as a veterinarian. Germany, facing an acute shortage of skilled workers, would love to have her.

A perfect match, it seems, but something's holding her back: She doesn't speak German.

The European Union was built on a grand vision of free labor markets in which talent could be matched with demand in a seamless and efficient manner, much in the way workers in the U.S. hop across states in search of opportunity. But today only 3 percent of working age EU citizens live in a different EU country, research shows. As young people in crisis-hit southern Europe face unemployment rates hovering at 50 percent, many find themselves caught in a language trap, unable to communicate in the powerhouse economy that needs their skills the most: Germany.

"I think going abroad is my best option," said Menendez, "but for people like me who have never studied German, it would be like starting from zero."

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Editors: This is the latest installment in Class of 2012, an exploration of Europe's financial crisis through the eyes of young people emerging from the cocoon of student life into the worst downturn the continent has seen since the end of World War II. Follow the class on its new Google plus page: http://apne.ws/ClassOf2012

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In northern Europe, companies are desperately seeking to plug labor gaps caused by low birth rates and the growing need for specialized skills amid still robust economies. Germany alone requires tens of thousands of engineers, IT-specialists, nurses and doctors to keep its economy thriving in the years to come.

But a recent study pinpointed language as the single biggest barrier to cross-border mobility in Europe.

"What seems to prevent further labor market integration in Europe is the fact that we speak different languages," said Nicola Fuchs-Schuendeln, a Frankfurt University economics professor who co-authored the study.

Few German employers are prepared to compromise when it comes to language skills, according to Raimund Becker, who heads the German Federal Employment Agency's division for foreign and specialist recruitment. "If you want to work as an engineer you'll need a certain specialist vocabulary," he said. "Even colloquial German isn't enough."

Earlier this year the agency announced it would invest up to (EURO)40 million ($51 million) in special programs to help jobless Europeans aged 18 and 35 learn German so they can pursue jobs or training in Germany.

The measure targets people like Menendez, who graduated from veterinary school and has two master's degrees but hasn't been able to find work in Spain.

The market for veterinarians in her home country has taken a phenomenal beating over the past four years. Veterinary clinics are cutting back severely because crisis-hit Spaniards are spending less on pets, and a recent hike in the sales tax to 21 percent is hurting these businesses even more. "They're just not hiring," Menendez said.

She would also be qualified to work as a veterinarian for an agricultural company, and she has sent about 1,000 resumes to all corners of Spain over the last year. But only two companies called her back for a preliminary interview. Neither called to invite her for a formal one.

Menendez said she found plenty of jobs online in Germany, where EU rules mean her Spanish qualification would be accepted. But the ads are either in German or, if in English, say that candidates must have good German.

Like most Spaniards, she studied English at school and is now focusing on improving her English. Often touted as the continent's `lingua franca,' English is widely used in multi-national companies but rarely in the public sector or the small-to-medium sized enterprises that employ the bulk of the European labor force. Meanwhile, London isn't the magnet for young English-speaking Europeans that it used to be. Migrants who flocked there a decade ago are now returning home or looking elsewhere for work as Britain, too, struggles with a rising jobless rate.

Ricardo de Campano learned the hard way how critical it is to have a wide set of language skills when he left London for Berlin two years ago. The 34-year-old said he quickly found work as a special needs teacher in London with the English he'd learned at school, but the same wasn't true when he came to Germany.

"If you want to have a decent job and be part of the system, pay your taxes and have your health insurance, you need to have German," said De Campano, who is now studying the language of Goethe at an adult education college where Spaniards have come to make up the biggest single group of students in recent years.