Higher education and unemployment in Europe
Aldo Ramirez Reyes chose to study chemistry for its career prospects, but now his future is less certain than he might have hoped. He completed his undergraduate course at the Autonomous University of Barcelona in September and would like to go on to do a PhD, but with science funding being cut in the economic aftermath of Spain’s property market implosion, that is harder than it used to be.
Like millions of young people across southern Europe today, Reyes must negotiate the obstacles of diminished public spending and surging unemployment to reach their career goals. They enter a new job market powered less by government-sponsored science, and more by industries looking to slash costs and boost exports. And though the outlook for chemists may not be as bleak as for some of their compatriots, lower wages are increasingly focusing attention abroad.
Aldo Ramirez Reyes hopes to find a PhD after graduating, but will look for industrial jobs too, in Spain and abroadReyes will finish his degree later than many of his coursemates, whose final exams were earlier in the summer, and he has seen the struggles they face. ‘For most people it’s really hard, ’ he said. ‘I have two friends who were lucky, one had a placement in her degree, and she was hired by that company. The other one got funding from the government to do a PhD.’
‘Probably now we are in the worst possible moment with respect to the economic crisis, ’ says Miquel Pericàs, director of Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonia (ICIQ) in Tarragona, Spain. ‘45–50% of 20–25 year old people are unemployed, though this is not so bad for people who have done university studies, and even better for people holding a PhD.’
With ICIQ hosting exclusively graduate students, that statistic is especially relevant to Pericàs. However, careers in academia are also tougher thanks to government cuts like the 30% budget gouge the Spanish National Research Council has suffered since 2008. ‘Many people earning a PhD are now considering going abroad because the situation is difficult in Spain, ’ he says.
Job opportunities in the Spanish chemical industry are also scarcer, Pericàs adds. ‘Intensive research companies, like pharmaceutical companies, that are not highly internationalised have severely cut their research programs.’ One example he cites is Palau-solità i Plegamans-based pharmaceutical group Uriach, which has completely exited new molecule development.
Warm countries, cool economies
Greek youth unemployment rates are even higher than Spain’s, at 55%, underlines Athanasios Papadopoulos, president of the Association of Greek Chemists. Meanwhile, the minimum wage for chemists has been halved, after the government encouraged negotiations for collective labour agreements to end. ‘The wage for young chemists is equal to any unskilled worker, ’ Papadopoulos says. ‘Colleagues who were recently fired and apply for a job find what they’re offered humiliating.’‘Investment in science is almost zero. There will be a hole in our development, in industry and university research’Wages for academic and other government roles have also fallen 40% under the country’s austerity measures. ‘There is no appetite to work in the public sector, ’ Papadopoulos says. ‘Thousands now find their way to European institutes or industry and even further: Oceania or America.’ The attraction of working abroad is obvious, when compared against the problems staying in Greece presents. ‘Young chemists find a working environment that cannot guarantee survival, but they must create some working experience. So they accept a wage less than €600 (£513) per month. Most of them are not in position to get married or start a family.’
While low wages could make chemical industry investment in Greece attractive, innovation ‘remains the only exit from the crisis’, Papadopoulos insists. ‘The Greek and European governments should give incentives to innovative chemical companies to produce knowledge, in coordination with institutes and universities. This will be the key for recovery and, especially for Greece, will cease the plague of scientist migration.’