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Greeks Flock to Germany Even as They Criticize It

Thousands of well-educated workers are fleeing Greece as the euro zone crisis batters their homeland.

European Union (EU) flags fly outside the the European Commission headquarters in Brussels.
Bloomberg
European Union (EU) flags fly outside the the European Commission headquarters in Brussels.

Germany, Europe's economic powerhouse and a country that has been criticized by many Greeks over its harsh demands for austerity cuts in return for bailout cash, has experienced an influx of young skilled immigrants.

Der Spiegel magazine noted that while Greek newspapers "printed cartoons depicting the Germans as Nazis, concentration camp guards, and euro zone imperialists who allow their debtors to bleed to death," the Greeks have kept arriving — bringing an "anything is better than Athens" attitude with them.

With more than 50 percent of young Greeks out of work, it's not surprising that official statistics show the number of Greeks who moved to Germany increased 90 percent during 2011.

Unemployment rates have consistently been shrinking in Germany in recent years and the economy is thriving, despite Europe's ongoing financial crisis. Relaxed cross-border employment regulations for member states of the European Union also make Germany an attractive choice for job seekers. While Germany is in need of specialized workers, however, the Greek labor market has little to offer.

Warning of 'Cold War' Over Cuts

"It is virtually impossible to find a job in Greece at the moment," says Christos Christoglou, an inspection engineer who took a job at German chemical and pharmaceutical giant Bayer at the start of the financial crisis in June 2010. "It is not that there are only very few jobs for young graduates to seek, no, there are none, zero, there is nothing."

A year after moving to Germany, Christoglou's wife Mary and their 5-year-old daughter Georgina joined him last summer. The family now lives in a four-bedroom apartment in Leverkusen. They are likely to stay for good.

"My wife, an English teacher, and our daughter, do not speak German yet. But my Mary will soon also try to find a job," Christoglou told NBC News. "And while, yes, it is quite difficult to be without our close friends and family in Greece, I do not want to waste my six years of intensive studies to find myself without hope for the future."

Christoglou, 38, says incentives are needed to prevent Greece'swell-educated workforcefrom abandoning the country.

"I know many Greek academics, but also ordinary workers, who have moved to wealthier European countries, like France, the Netherlands, or Sweden," he added.

Financial Knife Edge

According to Germany's national statistics office, some 24,000 people left Greece last year to live and work in Germany, almost double the number who did so in 2010. However, Der Spiegel quoted Hamburg-based immigration expert Vassilis Tsianos as pointing out that those figures did not include people who had not registered with German authorities. Tsianos told the magazine he estimates that 60,000 new Greek immigrants arrived in Germany in 2011.

There was also a significant spike in the number of immigrants relocating to Germany from other economically depressed southern European countries last year, with official statistics showing an increase of 52 percent from Spain, 28 percent from Portugal and 23 percent from Italy.

The recent arrivals include 27-year-old IT specialist Vasileia Paschali, who decided to bid farewell to Greece's political and economic turmoil and arrived in the quaint southern German city of Boeblingen nine months ago. She didn't speak a word of German.

"The most difficult thing was learning German, it was terrifying at the beginning," Paschali told NBC News. "Life is so quiet and structured here in Boeblingen, which is quite a contrast to the hectic routine I experienced in Athens."

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks as during a news conference to announce Medicare Fraud Strike Force law enforcement actions October 4, 2012 at the Justice Department in Washington, DC.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks as during a news conference to announce Medicare Fraud Strike Force law enforcement actions October 4, 2012 at the Justice Department in Washington, DC.

She responded to a job offer from German engineering development supplier Ruecker, a company that mainly services the automobile and aviation sectors.

Prepare for Greek Exit

Wiesbaden-based Ruecker is actively recruiting technical engineers from Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Italy, offering them a two-month paid language course followed by an open-ended contract with a guaranteed base salary of about $4,500 per month.

"There are simply not enough qualified applicants on the German market," says Thomas Aukamm, who works for Ruecker's marketing and recruiting department. "These are investments that we need to make in order to secure the workforce that we work with in the future."

The company has received about 3,500 applications, mainly from southern European countries, and is presently evaluating about 500 of them.

"Even if we could only fill 10 percent of the open positions, we would be very happy," Aukamm added.

'Leaving Everything Behind'

For Paschali, whose parents, 28-year-old brother, and other close family members remain in Greece, the move to Germany was not an easy choice.

Paschali already had a job at a local company in Athens, but she was forced to accept a 20 percent pay cut due to the financial crisis.

"Leaving everything behind with an uncertain future was difficult, of course, but I was seeking stability and believe that I can find it here in Germany," says Paschali, who is originally from the rural town of Trikala.

Greece's national unemployment rate presently stands at nearly 22 percent overall — German tabloid BILD has depicted Greeks as "lazy" — and widespread protests against the government's austerity measures continue. However, an estimated 70,000 engineering positions remain unfilled at the moment in Germany.

"Germany's skilled labor shortage could have severe economic consequences," said Dr. Ina Kayser of the the German Association of Engineers. "We estimate that the labor market could face economic losses of up to 7 billion euros, or nearly $10 billion, as a result of, for example, production delays or necessary relocation of production abroad."

Other German business sectors are also starting to look abroad.

'Vicious Circle'

Hospitals and private medical practices are also in need of highly trained personnel, especially in Germany's rural areas, where many workers have migrated to cities.

Karl Horn, staff manager at the Rheinhessen Clinic in Alzey, says that health-care executives are increasingly looking at the southern European labor market.

"We've already sent out tweets in Spanish to advertise openings at our clinic," Horn said.

Despite a degree in applied foreign languages, Anna Sioki was only able to find work at a book store in Thessaloniki after finishing her studies in 2009. She decided to come to Germany two years ago.

"I was one of the lucky ones, because I left at the beginning of the crisis," the 27-year-old told NBC News.

Her parents were not as fortunate. Sioki's father, an electrician, had to close his shop due to a lack of business and has been unemployed for nearly two years. Her parents now live on a small pension that her mother receives.

"It is pretty bad that all the specialists are going abroad," Sioki self-critically remarked. "How is Greece supposed to make progress that way? But, I see no other solution for myself and the other young Greeks."