Learn German, Then Stay Home Anyway - Pacific Standard

Learn German, Then Stay Home Anyway

Unemployed Europeans are studying German to find work. But so are the employed ones.
Author:
Publish date:
Avinguda Mistral in Sant Antoni, Barcelona, Spain. (PHOTO: PERE PRLPZ/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Avinguda Mistral in Sant Antoni, Barcelona, Spain. (PHOTO: PERE PRLPZ/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Here's a snapshot from this morning of people waiting to register for language classes at the German cultural center in Sant Antoni, a neighborhood on the edge of downtown Barcelona. It was sign-up day for the intermediate and advanced classes, so everyone had been through this before and knew it would take the whole morning. Several had brought novels to pass the time. I happened onto the scene while taking my son to his pre-school, which is located behind the center. I talked to a few people. I assumed they would tell me they were studying German as part of a plan to flee the Spanish economy for better prospects in northern Europe. But most of the people in the line said they had jobs already. Pretty good ones: architect, management, teaching. What was going on? Are Mediterraneans suddenly really interested in German literature?

1-of-3-595x392

This was a line as long as a football field of people who thought they could do better at home, so long as they gathered some additional skills. A valuable skill right now, in Europe and elsewhere, is the ability to make a phone call to Frankfurt.

"Germany doesn't have a shortage of workers." That's Alex Torrent, a 34-year-old architect who has already studied English and French. He was registering for his second year of German. "They aren't looking for more people. People think if they learn the language, they go to Germany and work in their career [field]. But when they go there, they end up working as waiters."

A recent OECD study found that of the million immigrants who arrived to Germany for work last year, 600,000 had left within a year. More people immigrated to Turkey from Germany than the reverse last year.

That's not a common observation here. It's more common to see Germany as an easy place to get a job. Torrent's closer to the truth: A recent OECD study found that of the million immigrants who arrived to Germany for work last year, 600,000 had already left. More people immigrated to Turkey from Germany than the reverse last year. A report by Der Spiegel, quoting the OECD numbers, found that only one in two Greeks and one in three Spanish immigrants stayed in Germany after their first year. The idea of having access to the powerful German economy from home, without actually going to Germany, makes sense in light of those numbers.

That's a big, if subtle, change in thinking. The idea of developing a skill that will lead to a job at home, but in a pan-European or global world, is arriving late to the Eurozone crisis. Imagine the Joads deciding, after five years of watching people unsuccessfully flee the dust bowl for California, to stay in Oklahoma and study irrigation engineering instead.

"The company isn't paying for it. I am. But I will get promoted faster," said Julia San Pedro, who works for Spanish automaker Seat (pronounced say-aht, not seet, sadly). San Pedro is 24 years old, putting her in the dreaded under-25 demographic that faces a nearly 60 percent unemployment rate in Spain. Being one of the 40 percent with work, she said, makes her think she needs to do something to hang on to it. "I don't plan to leave, no," she said.

Still, that's just a handful of interviews, from one long line, in one neighborhood on one day. The well-documented flight of trained, university educated, expensive labor from Europe's south to its north is still evident in virtually any census. It would be irresponsible to suggest that's likely to abate until the jobs numbers improve.

With that in mind, it's worth remark that the line snaking through Sant Antoni this morning wasn't the 21st century version of a bread line it seemed to be at first. What local companies need is the ability to talk to partners with money. Right now, those partners are in Germany, and speak German. The line was filled with people who had identified something people need, even amid a Depression-level crisis. They were trying to get ahold of that thing, then would turn around and sell it. From home.

Alex Torrent, the architect, said he'd been laid off after eight years at a firm and spent a year on the dole sending out resumes. He now works for a construction materials company that does much of its business exporting to the Middle East. To get back into his chosen field, adding German will help. Speaking a language, unlike drafting or being creative or calculating stresses and loads, was something you either needed or you didn't, but when you needed it it was impossible to fudge or fake. "They hired me because I speak English and French. For the languages." So he'd add more, he figured. Couldn't hurt. "Why should I get a master's in some subject, and then not get hired?"

Related