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Spanish youth urged to seek work abroad

People enter a government employment office in Madrid April 3, 2012. Spain's number of registered jobless rose for the eighth straight month in March.

© Juan Medina / Reuters/JUAN MEDINA/REUTERS

Marta Fernández should have been celebrating. After looking for work for months, she found a position in a media company in Madrid. But her new job, working full-time for €300 ($390) a month, will barely cover her rent.

She is one of the luckier Spaniards aged 25 and under, of whom more than half are languishing outside of work or education as the country suffers one of the highest levels of youth unemployment in the EU.

The abrupt end of Spain's construction boom left thousands of young labourers without work. Joblessness has since spread to the country's most educated youth, cementing fears of a "lost generation" blighted for decades to come.

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José Ramón Pin Arboledas, a professor at the IESE business school at the University of Navarra, says the delay in entering the work force risks scarring a generation of young people, and argues that those who can should move abroad if they need to.

"During the boom, many young people left school to work in construction, lost their jobs and are now left with no basic education," he says. "They are now lost and must be retrained somehow. On the other hand you have educated young people who have graduated into the crisis. At least they have the option to leave."

Laura Frieyro, a theatre set designer, is moving to Mexico, where she says there is not only more work, but also the chance to escape a "crisis attitude" that is sucking motivation from her peers.

"You go out on the street here and everyone is talking about the crisis, about politics. In Mexico they are used to having problems, the attitude is completely different," she says. "People in Mexico are shocked when I tell them there is no work here in Spain. It is a complete change of roles."

The psychological effect of joblessness has worn down some of her friends.

"I know people who now just sit at home all day, watching TV, depressed. It is absurd to have someone who is 27 or 28 living like that."

As an increasing number of educated young Spaniards leave to seek work abroad, the country risks being deprived of talent that will be in demand when better times return.

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Spain's National Statistics Institute expects more than 500,000 people to leave Spain each year until 2020 if demographic trends continue, according to a report published last year.

For those who choose to stay in Spain, a solid education provides no guarantee of finding work. Haizea Uuinpas, a 26-year-old living in the Basque Country, has begun an English course after an unsuccessful job search, having already completed a degree in geology, a masters in environmental studies and a further degree in education.

Faced with high costs for firing older employees, companies have little incentive to offer fixed work to younger staff. In a country where a third of work contracts are temporary, Spanish youth hold double the number of so-called "junk contracts" than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average.

"Companies know we are in crisis, so they can get people working for less," says Ms. Uuinpas. "If you need money, you have no choice to wait for something better – you have to eat."

Spain's labour law reforms will lower the amount of compensation offered to workers who are laid off, in the hope that companies will be freer to offer permanent contracts to the predominantly young Spaniards stuck in the slow lane in the country's two-speed labour market.

While economists have praised the reforms as going some way toward resolving the structural issues that have disproportionately affected the young, they say the effects will take years, rather than months, to be felt.

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That is time many young people do not have – meaning the best option may be to uproot themselves and leave.

"Young people emigrating might be painful in the short term, but they will one day return with better skills, and knowledge of the world," says Mr. Pin Arboledas. "It may hurt, but is a good thing for Spain in the long term."

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