Structural unemployment & low salaries: The not-so-sunny side of Spain
“My family was really happy with our life in Spain,” Jens, a German expat who had been working for a US multinational in Barcelona, told me during our meeting.
“When my assignment was up, I wasn’t satisfied with what I was offered back home and I really wanted to stay. So I started looking for a job in the Spanish job market. It was a huge shock at first, and I wish I had been better prepared so as to make the search less grueling.”
Jens, like so many other international professionals, encountered that not-so-sunny side of Spain when he launched his job search. The Spanish labor market has idiosyncrasies—structural unemployment, low salaries and more— that can bewilder talented professionals in search of employment opportunities.
In this interview, Marta Puig-Samper offers some insights and tips from her outplacement experience that we hope will make your search a bit easier.
Q: What makes the Spanish labor market “different”?
Spain has a high rate of unemployment and it is structural, meaning it is persistent through time, though more or less acute depending on the overall economic context.
The unemployment rate of 2019 was 13.78%, that is very high if you compare it with other European countries.
In addition to this structural unemployment, we have a high level of temporary contracts, low salaries and a 40% rate of students (16-29 years) leaving schools without finishing their studies, the highest rate in the EU. On top of that, 8/10 jobs come from the service sector, many of which are in tourism/hospitality.
For job hunters that means that the job market is less fluid than in other countries and it can be more challenging to find specific executive roles. There are, however, positions connected with technology and digitization that are difficult for companies to fill. And many businesses struggle to attract international talent due to salaries and the required paperwork.
Q: Do you think that expats who wish to stay here after an assignment have appropriate expectations when they launch a job search?
It depends. Some understand that the real Spanish job market is different, but I think that in general they are not 100% aware. When expat partners (trailing spouses) are looking for jobs, they start getting more information about the “real” job market, and of course they share this information with their partners. So there is certainly awareness.
Professionals who are living here as expats typically enjoy very good salaries and benefits. But if they move to Spain without a job, they will need to face specific challenges connected with culture and language. Equally important are the challenges related to understanding the idiosyncrasies of our job market. I have worked with expats that logically have expectations regarding salary and other benefits and they are stunned by what they are offered as highly skilled and experienced professionals here in Spain, especially given our cost of living.
Q: What advantages or disadvantages do these executives and senior managers have when searching for employment here?
They are very well prepared professionally, solid experience in multinational companies, highly educated, they speak English fluently and often another language as well. They have a positive attitude, wanting to enjoy the country and culture which has a lot to offer in terms of quality of life. They also understand that they need to adapt in order to settle.
Nevertheless, there are some obstacles if they are not coming with an expat assignment. These have to do with paperwork, not just work permission if they are from a non-EU country, but also validating their degrees and certifications.
Achieving a level of professional fluency in Spanish is really important. Also, the subtleties of how people relate to each other at work and job search “codes” can take a while to figure out. For example, they may find that in traditional SMEs (PYMES), there is more emphasis placed on “face time” or presenteeism at the office rather than on giving you ownership of your work and results.
Also, executive search and consultancy firms are not as engaging as international professionals expect. And of course, the job search in general, can be much more prolonged. Many of these idiosyncrasies are related to the structural unemployment that I referred to before. And it is for this same reason that executive recruiting firms and headhunters are less proactively engaging with candidates; they instead react to their clients’ needs in a market with less plentiful positions to fill.
Q: On average, how long should a senior manager expect to be job hunting in this economy?
It’s difficult to put a number on it as it will depend on his/her profile, their readiness to look for jobs when they are here, their job search strategy and the fact that they also need time to settle.
The average time for a Spanish professional is over 15 months but this can be reduced to less than one year using career advice support or outplacement services. It is easy to expect 6 months to 1.5 years when job-hunting for high level executive positions.
Q: What are your recommendations in terms of networking?
It’s important to be proactive. If you don’t speak the language fluently, begin by focusing on English-speaking groups or expat groups where you are able to communicate.
If you are fluent in Spanish, look out for industry conferences, associations, specific meet ups, job fairs, etc.
Another way to connect and broaden your network is to start a pro-bono project, working with an NGO or charity organization. You can also become a member of an international association that can give you visibility, taking up a specific role that you enjoy.
Other options are enrolling in a course, business school program or non-related with business but with something that you enjoy doing. There are also professional events you can attend paying a specific fee.
Proactively engage with executive search consultants that are working in your targeted industry. It is advisable to prepare an online and offline strategy but please avoid spending all of your time in front of the computer. Online searches are like shooting at a target in the dark; you might get lucky, but it’s more likely that you’ll get frustrated. Whenever possible, arrange face-to-face meetings with people.
Q: Would you recommend that they contact headhunting firms?
It’s important to identify which headhunting firms are working in your targeted job roles and industry sector. Locating a consultant and engaging with them personally even if there’s not a role advertised can be helpful. But also understand how many people reach out to them and that they activate a search for candidates when a client has a specific need. So when there’s a job offer that you are interested in, it is more likely that they will engage with you if they see you are a good match.
Executive search firms and headhunting firms in other countries are open to informational interviews with potential candidates, even if they don’t have a specific role to fill. That usually is not the case in Spain. While in other countries they might assume a more supportive role to candidates, here they are more focused on serving the companies they are recruiting for.
But it is still worth being proactive with headhunters. If you interacted with them in the past, follow up on jobs and selection processes; they will not necessarily go after you.
Q: Can you recommend any job search tools and resources to help international professionals in their efforts?
- Gather niche and quality job boards, make a list of the best ones for your profile. Ask locals what they use.
- Gather names of temporary agencies, interim organizations and selection consultancies that you will be following and engaging with.
- Work on your LinkedIn profile, as it is a strong marketing tool. (Other social platforms may apply too, depending on your industry).
- Be visible. Remember that is important to be found. A recruiter will conduct a candidate search on LinkedIn, so ensure you have the right keywords and share content that positions you as an expert in your field. Join specialized groups on LinkedIn too.
- Attend events (social and professional), engage with students at the language school if you are taking intensive Spanish lessons. If you have kids, connect with parents who are local or international.
- Make use of the local resources in your city, city hall events or professional networks. What type of services is the city offering to expats? For example, here in Barcelona there are organizations like Barcelona Global and the Professional Women’s Network and many, many more.
- Hire a career consultant that knows the local job market so you can speed the process of adapting your marketing tools and job-search strategies. You can also engage with local professionals who work in the same industry and roles you are looking for.
Q: Any specific tips or recommendations?
Attitude is essential, to be patient and perseverant, to understand that things take time. You are not only looking for a job, you are adapting to the country and the job market. In many cases you will need to build a network from scratch.
Try not to compare how things are done back in your home country or international post. Also remember that looking for a job is a full-time job so try to take a healthy approach to it and plan time to disconnect from that work. Create a job-search plan adapted to your target audience, build quality not quantity contacts and remember that there’s a hidden market filled with opportunities, so learn how to tap into it.