'It's a graveyard': The software devs leaving Greece for good

The economical turmoil affecting the country is luring its tech staff away, and many don't plan to come back.

George Vakalopoulos worked 12 hour days, Monday to Sunday, for a small software company in Greece. He wasn't paid for six months, and even financed business trips abroad from his own pocket, hoping that things would work out. They didn't. Vakalopoulos left Greece in 2012 and is now based in Zürich, Switzerland. "I had no option other than going abroad after I delivered my project. It wasn't worth working in Athens under such conditions," he told ZDNet.

He's not the only one that's dispirited. Thousands of IT workers have moved abroad in the past five years, a brain drain that's weighing heavily on a country burdened with €317bn of debt. The referendum held on July 5, which saw 61 percent of the voters reject further austerity measures, brings further uncertainty to the country's financial future. Local banks are running low on cash reserves, and the prospects Greece will exit the eurozone look to be increasing.

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"In the last three years, almost 80 percent of my friends, mostly developers, left Greece," Panagiotis Kefalidis told ZDNet. He's now a software developer in Vancouver, Canada. "When I left for North America, my mother was not happy, but... it is what it is."

From a developer's perspective, the choice seems a simple one: an experienced Java or a C++ specialist can earn up to three times their Greek salary in Western Europe, and will be paid according to what their contract states.

Many developers have already made their choice. An Endeavor study estimates that 200,000 Greeks below the age of 35 have left the country between 2010 and 2013. Most of them are "highly educated and skilled," the report says, with medical, finance, and ICT among the sectors seeing the biggest brain drains.

A one-way ticket

Kefalidis knew that leaving Greece was his best option when he saw the offer a Belgian software company made him. "The choice was easy," he said.

He doesn't regret moving first to Western Europe and later to North America. "Career growth is capped in Greece. [Workers] are leaving because they are not paid enough." Those IT professionals who remain in the country have either families with children, need to take care of their aging parents, or they simply haven't got the chance to leave the country yet," he said.

Half of those that have already left the country don't plan on returning in the near future, a study conducted by ICAP Group involving over 1,300 Greeks working abroad found.

There are four main factors that compel professionals from all industries to consider leaving. First is the lack of meritocracy and the corruption in the country, mentioned by 37 percent of those interviewed for the ICAP study. Second is the absence of suitable jobs (35 percent): Greece has one of the highest unemployment rates for young people with tertiary education in the EU. Others quote the economic crisis and the need to seek better development prospects (each mentioned by 33 percent of respondants).

"The fact that many of these talented Greek people do not want (20 percent) or do not foresee (30 percent) that they will ever return to Greece is extremely sad," Nikitas Konstantellos, CEO of ICAP Group, told local media. Nearly three-quarters of those questioned hold a master's degree and are highly skilled. "Before it's too late, we need not only to stop the excessive exodus of talent abroad, but to bring back those who excel. This should be a national priority," Konstantellos said.

The brain drain is likely to continue. Seven out of ten university graduates in Greece would like to work abroad, while one in ten is actively seeking a job overseas or plans to continue their education there, thinking that they'll have access to other job markets, a Kapa Research study showed.

Most Greek IT professionals who decide to build their future somewhere else pick European countries such as the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Others look farther afield, to the US or even Australia.

What they leave behind

The Federation of Hellenic Information Technology & Communications Enterprises (SEPE) in Greece told ZDNet that IT specialists have been leaving the country "at a much slower pace" compared to other sectors of the economy.

"The ICT industry offers a variety of outsourcing solutions -- sustaining the demand for certified professionals -- even through times of severe economic recession," a SEPE spokesperson said.

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The sector has managed to maintain steady growth in past years, regardless of the challenges it has faced. The value of the country's exports of telecommunications, computer, and information services totalled $1.2bn dollars in 2014, according to the World Trade Organization. In 2013, that figure was just $1bn.

Companies, however, are experiencing a shortage of developers. "SEPE has undertaken recently an initiative to train 3,000 people, to fill this digital gap in Greece, and at the same time to certify another 3,000 Greek ICT professionals," the Federation's spokesperson told ZDNet.

IT jobs are the sixth hardest ones to fill in Greece, according to ManpowerGroup's 2015 Talent Shortage Survey, with senior developers' gross monthly salary varying between €2,600 and €3,200.

"There is a big discussion about the brain drain and the 'exodus' of Greek students (undergraduate and postgraduate) and professionals," a ManpowerGroup spokesperson told ZDNet. "Especially highly qualified and/or high-rank professionals claim to be interested in examining relocation opportunities during the initial interview stages, but when the decision time approaches, the talent pool shrinks due to the cost of relocation (affordable only if the position is really high) or uncertainty over the duration of the project," he said.

Tech giants such as Microsoft have easier access to the talent pool. "It is true that many young people over the last couple of years have migrated abroad," Timos Platsas, citizenship director of Microsoft Greece, told ZDNet. "However there are a lot of Greek people who do not choose this path, and decide to study and work in their country."

The company, which employs around 100 workers in the country, can still take its time in filling positions. "Normally, for more technical roles, the hiring process lasts a bit longer, approximately 3 months, due to the fact that the required profile is more specialized, and therefore more time is needed in order to identify the most suitable candidate," Platsas said.

Spain, Italy, and Portugal

Other European countries hard-hit by the recession are witnessing the human capital flight phenomenon at different degrees, according to a MarketWatch analysis.

By 2020, almost two million high-skilled jobs will be difficult to fill in Spain, a report by employment agency Randstad found, and IT and engineering are among the sectors that suffer most.

Italy is also looking for new ways to fill voids in the tech job market. "In 2013, 82,000 Italians left our country. 30 percent are graduates," said Marco Guarna, managing director of Modis Italia, part of Adecco Italy that focuses on IT staff. It's not known how many of those work in the tech field.

There's an even bigger problem facing the industry than migration of its workers, however. "The number of young students pursuing ICT careers has decreased constantly during the last ten years to 2014-2015. We have just 2,700 new graduates in computer science," Guarna says.

The flight of human capital is also putting pressure on Portugal's economy: the country has lost over 400,000 people since 2011. However, the IT sector is managing to hold on and has seen "no severe drain," according to ManpowerGroup.

Finding the right tech people for a certain job has always been a difficult task in Europe, however, a fact that companies acknowledge. "Recruiting ICT people remains a challenge in all of the EMEA region, despite the different degrees of economic crisis that countries are facing," said Henk Van Ursel, HR director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at outsourcer Stefanini.

"Stefanini is present in more than 10 countries in Europe, including Portugal, Greece and Spain. Despite the challenges we face in EMEA markets, we manage to cope and we are so far successful in recruiting the necessary qualified ICT specialists," he told ZDNet.

"A graveyard"

Back in Greece, the brain drain continues. Software engineer Paris Apostolopoulos left the country a month ago and is now based in Luxembourg. "Greece was something like a graveyard for me, at least that's how I felt."

He decided to leave the country hoping for a better future. "I need to ensure that my kids will grow up in a secure and stable environment," he told ZDNet. "I hope that my kids will understand why I decided to leave."

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