Portugal's New Export: Jobs


At both ends of the workforce spectrum, Portuguese are saying the same thing—I want a job.

At the University of Lisbon in the capital, student Sara Henriques believes that her best employment opportunities lie outside the country. “I have to go abroad, maybe Italy, or some other countries that have better companies, better jobs,” she said.

Idle textile worker Armindo Leite, 57, of Porto, thinks his prospects for finding work are substantially more limited than those of Henriques.

Leite lost his job a year and half ago along with 280 workers after working for 40 years at one of his city’s once-plentiful textile factories. The company shut its doors for good the day after Christmas, because profits were in short supply.

Some major factors—open economic borders, the euro and competition from Asia—have impacted the lives of these two Portuguese nationals and many others like them.

To the average Portuguese citizen, it’s unclear why their country is in such dire straits. After all, being part of the European Union was supposed to shield them from such a crisis. The nation's unemployment rate is an estimated 9.2 percent.

Open borders have been beneficial for some countries, while for others, like Portugal, it’s a double-edged sword.

Nearly 20 percent of workers with some university education are employed abroad—significantly more than those with higher education from other European Union countries like France, Germany and even its neighbor on the Iberian Peninsula, Spain.

“I have many students who go abroad for two, three, five, 10 years, but that’s good,” said Portuguese economist and former finance minister Luis Campos e Cunha, whose own son is employed outside of Portugal. “We also have many more foreigners working here. So it’s kind of a slow melting pot.”

Still, some in Portugal worry that with less talent in the country, there’s less of a chance that it will innovate its way out of the downturn.

Manufacturing, Portugal’s lifeblood, has faced fierce competition from Asia and, as a result, essentially lost this battle for now: Portugal is a shadow of its former self. Textiles have been hit the hardest: Production is down 25 percent and employment is off 20 percent from 2004 levels.

With so much fiscal trouble, would Portugal have been better off independent? No, maintains Camops e Cunha.

Still it’s been a steep learning curve. Portuguese debt is expected to hit 85 percent of GDP, up from 76 percent last year, thanks to the government’s heavy spending on infrastructure projects.

As debt grows more costly, many question how Portugal—and other euro zone countries—will be able to enact the necessary austerity measures while juggling rising unemployment and shrinking economies.

However, for workers like Leite and students about to enter the workforce, like Henriques, they want results sooner, rather than later.

“I don’t have hope to find a job,” said Leite, “because unemployment is a huge problem here. Even youngsters face some problems. Imagine an old man.”