Greece’s labour market improves with strong education and rising employment
© Copyright by Giannis Giannelos

HumanCapital

  • Human Capital Stats Icon 1
    1.6 m

    Greek professionals on LinkedIn (Oct. 2019)

  • Human Capital Stats Icon 2
    16.9%

    Unemployment rate (Q2 2019)

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    73%

    Workforce employed in services sector (2018)

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    7th

    Greece’s OECD ranking on secondary or post-secondary education levels (2018).

Greece has an impressive pool of employee talent from which to draw. The country’s workforce is one of the most educated in the world as Greeks place a high priority on education and learning foreign languages. Efforts to keep education levels high were maintained during the crisis, providing potential employers with a large number of quality choices from which to staff their positions. Improvements have also begun with one of the labour market’s biggest problems: the mismatch between graduates coming out of university and market needs. Greeks are now more in tune with what employers want, as companies also embark on initiatives to close this gap.
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People make the Difference

Greece has one of the highest numbers of degree-educated adults according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Meanwhile, initiatives aim at reversing brain drain.

Greece’s human capital is arguably the country's biggest asset.

Greek families place enormous value on their children attending university, resulting in some of the highest educational outcomes among those surveyed by the OECD (May 2019).

Greek employees are well-educated, polished in foreign languages, and possess strong IT skills. English is, by far, the most favoured second language in business, and in fact it is often the main language of doing business in Greece, especially in tourism and shipping – the twin drivers of the economy.

With tourism employing close to 50% of people in the workforce directly and indirectly, according to a spring 2019 report by the Greek Tourism Confederation’s intelligence body (INSETE), it is not surprising that many of Greece’s post-secondary educational institutions offer 360-degree courses in hospitality studies, emphasising languages skills as well as IT training.

On a per-capita basis, more students from Greece travel abroad to study in foreign higher education institutions than in most other countries. Popular university destinations include the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Cyprus, and the United States.

In fact, the proportion of 25-64 year-olds in Greece today who hold a general degree is one of the highest in the OECD. According to data ranking 37 OECD and partner countries, based on secondary or post-secondary education levels, Greece comes in at 7th place. The fields of science, technology and engineering are particularly favoured. This comes despite low performances on OECD PISA tests in primary-level education benchmarks.

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“Greeks traditionally invest in education, particularly graduate and doctoral education, and for us this is a priority,” says Notis Mitarachi, Greece’s former Deputy Minister for Labour and Social Affairs. “We are one of the highest exporters of students in the world. All of this creates a very strong human capital base, comprised of white-collar jobs, and highly skilled, well-educated, multilingual professionals,” he adds.

The conservative government that came into power in the summer of 2019 has said it aims to encourage the return of the large number of well-educated people who emigrated abroad.

Indeed, the economic crisis that plagued Greece over the last decade prompted a shocking brain drain of more than 400,000 Greeks between 2010 and 2017, who sought better employment prospects abroad. Most were highly educated according to research by Manolis Pratsinakis, an Onassis Foundation Research Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations.

Also underway is a proposed series of reforms to Greece’s higher education system that would contribute to place Greek universities in the international limelight, and boost competition amongst public and private sector institutions.

But a proposed overhaul to the state-run higher education system would change this, granting equal status to graduates of private colleges. “We have set out to change the Greek constitution – something we hope we will be able to achieve – to allow private universities to further strengthen the high quality of public education we already have in the country,” Mitarachi underlines.

In the meantime, Greece’s Education Minister Niki Kerameus unveiled plans in January 2020 to attract foreign students – particularly non-EU nationals – to study at Greece’s universities. The minister told the Financial Times that she hopes between 40,000 to 50,000 foreign students will be enrolled in English- language courses by 2024. The initiative would see new university courses made available in English, increasing revenues through tuition fees, while also benefiting Greeks who want to deepen their language skills.

Degrees Count in Greece Infographic

Exceptional Skills

Still, as things stand today, Greece has the largest rate of over- skilled workers across the economies participating in the May 2019 OECD report Skills Strategy. Yet it ranks within the lower 20% of the spectrum in terms of matching these skills with the labour market.

“The country’s workforce consists of great minds and exceptionally skilled people,” says Vangelis Morfis, Director of Marketing and Operations at Microsoft Hellas, Cyprus, and Malta.

“Athens has the same density of developers as London, while Greece is amongst the top European countries with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) diploma holders, at 25%, when the average rate for the OECD is 22%,” adds Morfis.

Country observers also point to a valuable research community at home-grown universities and institutes, whose members boast several publications and citations under their belt. They point out, though, the still-nascent synergies matching research and skills to the labour market.

“What is missing is a strong bridge from academia to industry, that is adapting education and research to product and services development based on real-world needs,” says Michail Bletsas, research scientist and the Director of Computing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Media Lab.

“This does happen in larger companies that invest in human capital development, but it is not common in smaller enterprises – the bulk of the Greek economy,” he adds.

And he should know. Originally from Crete, Bletsas left Greece for the U.S. to do his postgraduate studies in 1990, and later while researching at MIT’s Media Lab he became one of the main creators of the so-called $100 laptop – the One Laptop Per Child’s award- winning XO laptop, alongside MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte.

Bletsas has also pioneered the implementation of broadband access networks using cutting-edge technologies – including one of the earliest Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) testbeds and various wireless technologies – which he tested on the Greek island of Patmos. He has also mentored a lot of Greeks students as well as start-up entrepreneurs over the last two decades, in addition to advising industry and government leaders on tech issues.

Bletsas’ MIT colleague and fellow Greek, Constantinos Daskalakis, who has been dubbed one of the world’s smartest people after solving the Nash equilibrium, is also taking important initiatives on this front; he has announced plans to set up a privately funded research centre in Greece in an effort to reverse the brain drain.

A 2017 survey conducted by Endeavor Greece – along with the Athens University of Economics and Business and EY Greece – of students, professors, and other stakeholders in higher education, found a pronounced “mismatch between the country’s competitive advantages, the market needs, and the educational system.”

It called for a reskilling to match these elements better as well as boosting internships and company placements. It also prodded companies to take more initiatives to train employees themselves, link with universities, and to improve their focus on growth initiatives.

Daskalakis, who won the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize and the Grace Murray Hopper Award in 2018, teaches electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and is also a member of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). He wants his Greece-based centre to focus on artificial intelligence and has a clear eye on the exponential opportunities presented by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
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Educators team up

On the other side of the spectrum, making links themselves are several local higher education institutes.

The American College of Greece (ACG), the University of Piraeus, the Athens University of Economics and Business, and the Athens Tech College have teamed up. Their goal is to guide their students in developing new skills based on market needs, with a focus on entrepreneurship and key growth markets.

“Based on best practices in higher education, by what and how students want to learn, as well as by what employers expect our graduates to be able to do, we follow a skills-based approach in designing sustainable curricula” notes professor Emmanuel Varouchas, who leads the Management Information Systems department at Deree, The American College of Greece.

New growth plan

Looking ahead, ACG has also launched a whopping $75 million development campaign, the ACG150, Advancing the Legacy, Growing Greece plan, based on a study by McKinsey & Company on a new growth model and strategy for Greece. This new growth model could, potentially, have a tremendous impact on the Greek economy by creating 780,000 new jobs, while adding more than 66 billion euros to the country's annual GDP.

Based on these findings by McKinsey, ACG is developing new centres of excellence focusing on Greece’s key economic sectors, as well as an R&D Transfer Centre syncing with top US research universities, among other key initiatives.

"At The American College of Greece, we believe, based on the US education and economic model, that sustainable economic growth is created at the intersection of education and economic activity,” says David Horner, President, The American College of Greece.

Many of the college's students have already completed a degree at one of the country's public universities and are looking at further boosting their qualifications.

“In 2018, building on this tradition, ACG launched a strategic plan designed to even more intentionally and materially impact the Greek economy by addressing the key barriers to the country's sustainable economic growth. Empowering Greece's human capital is a key component of our plan,” Horner underlines.

There is also a push by Greek industry leaders to invite leading members of the Greek diaspora who excel at corporation, institutes and universities around the world to come to Greece.

Brain Regain

The recent initiative, called Brain Regain, is spearheaded by the non-profit association Hellenic Roots (Ellinikes Rizes) and is backed by 16 major Greek companies aiming to ‘regain’ thousands of Greek professionals who left during the crisis.

The mass exodus of workers during Greece’s crisis involved degree- educated professionals mostly aged between 18 and 35 who work in economics and administration, engineering, and IT fields, according to ICAP.

The Brain Regain initiative foresees high-ranking executives mentoring those returning to Greece for three months. Flagship companies include: Aegean Airlines, Alpha Bank, Athenian Brewery, Hellenic Corporation of Assets and Participations S.A., Kyklades Maritime Corporation, LeasePlan, METRO, Microsoft, Potamitis Vekris, Trans Adriatic Pipeline, Sani Ikos, T.E.MES, YGEIA Group, Upstream, Xerox Hellas, Zepos & Yannopoulos, The Bank of Greece, Eurobank, Fourlis Group, BEAT, DESFA, Hellenic Petroleum, Cosmote, Coca-Cola HBC, Titan, Piraeus Bank, Entersoft, Interamerican, Ogilvy, OTIS Greece & Cyprus, and Chipita, in addition to the non-profit association Hellenic Roots.

In December 2019, the Greek Labour and Social Affairs Ministry also announced incentives and measures to motivate professionals to return to the country. Under the pilot programme, ReBrain Greece, businesses are enticed to give well-paid jobs to 500 professionals aged 28 to 40 who are currently working outside of the country. The minimum monthly wage has been set at €3,000, with 70% covered by EU funds for the first year. The participating companies will eventually have to pay the same salary to these employees for at least another year.

“We’re providing incentives to companies to hire young, highly skilled, and highly educated Greeks living abroad who want to come back,” says Mitarachi.

There are indeed a number of initiatives aimed at attracting Greece’s expat professionals. If successful, the ground is fertile for Greece to forge ahead – benefiting from technology and other key knowhow transfer – while making the best of its talented human capital.

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