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Rebrain Greece Wants The Return of Best, Brightest

The National Herald

FILE - Eleftherios Venizelos airport in Spata, near Athens. (Photo by Eurokinissi/Yiannis Panagopoulos)

A near decade-long economic crisis that created an exodus of some of Greece’s top and youngest talents, unable to find work or fed up with a clientelist system holding them down and rewarding political friends stripped the country of skills the New Democracy government wants back.

As Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is trying to boost a slow recovery after the Aug. 20, 2018 end of three international bailouts of 326 billion euros ($365.48 billion) he’s also hoping to lure back minds the country needs for a rebound.

The Conservatives ouster of the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA that critics said did nothing to keep the country’s best has some living in other countries thinking of returning, although an earlier survey said most had given up ever coming back except to visit family and friends.

In a feature, the German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported on the experiences of some who left and are rethinking the decision, including one identified as Dimitris, who fled Greece with six friends to find work elsewhere in the European Union.

He’s a 33-year-old British-educated economist who has seen four who left with him already going back to Athens to find jobs or set up their own businesses, the tug of the homeland getting to them along with the hope of being part of a recovery.

Still, Dimitris, who worked across Spain the last three years with a string of multi-national companies doing investment projects said he’s “waiting it out,” although some signs of recovery are sending positive signals.

He’s not fully enticed even yet, he said, with Mitsotakis’ centerpiece magnet that promises top talent good jobs with a minimum salary of at least 3,000 euros ($3363.18) a month, nearly three times what veteran teacher or starting state hospital doctors get.

"It's a good move," Dimitris said, requesting anonymity to avoid potential reprisals from his current employers in Spain. "Bright minds make money. And if they return to Greece, they can make money for both themselves and the country."

"But I'm reluctant to rise to the bait," he told the German broadcaster. "I want to see more happen even before starting to consider taking down my suitcase from the closet."

Under the ambitious scheme, dubbed Rebrain Greece, returning recruits will be guaranteed at least two years employment, the first of which will be financed by the state by 75%. Highly skilled professionals and scientists aged between 25-40 will be targeted first off.

The government wanted to see at least 500 return by February but in the first week of the offer only 10 agreed, project organizers told Deutsche Welle, despite Greece picking up a buzz as the place to hop onto an early recovery and make a mark.

"We expect things to heat up as the process picks up," said Constantine Agrapidas, a senior labor ministry official overseeing the project. "It is a pilot plan. It has never been done before. But we are extremely optimistic."

There could be some extra incentives to grease the sticking skids.  "The objective at this phase," Agrapides said, “is to document the highly qualified needs of mainly high-tech Greek companies as the country wades into the depths of the digital era, the fourth industrial revolution."

"Once that happens, then we can stitch together an even bigger plan, with a more holistic approach that will target mid-level Greek professionals who left the country," he said.

About 470,000 Greeks have left the country since 2008 when hiring freezes started popping up in anticipation of economic woes that really hit hard in 2010 when the then-ruling and now-defunct PASOK Socialist government sought the first bailout of 110 billion euros ($123.33 billion.)

At least 270,000 are believed to be skilled professionals, including doctors and engineers aged between 20 and 39 and who have since then found jobs in Germany, the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, according to reports from the Bank of Greece, said DW.

Trying to lead by example, when Mitsotakis said up his administration that’s heavily laden with men, he recruited from the likes of Google and Microsoft.

"We do not expect to change things overnight," said Grigoris Zarifopoulos, a former Google executive now leading Greece's technology ministry. "Nor is this scheme a one-off plan that can cure brain drain. But it's an incentive and a move in the right direction. We obviously want more companies to lure back the talent."

Signs of wariness remain, however, Greeks who’ve been burned by broken promises of volatile governments hedging their bets for now and about 40 percent who left it was goodbye for good even if there’s a recovery.

"I did not leave home eight years ago because I was 3,000 euros short in my monthly budget," said Yiorgos Gotsinas, a corporate communications consultant who went to the UK and set up a robotics and computer coding business for children in West Sussex.

What pushed him away, he said, was the fear life would never be normal for him and his family. "Asking someone who has worked hard abroad to provide their family the stability and prospect of a better future to come back is unrealistic." His answer: “Thanks, but no thanks.”