Greek President-Elect Sakellaropoulou Wants Best, Brightest Back

Αssociated Press

Katerina Sakellaropoulou. (Orestis Panagiotou/ Pool via AP)

ATHENS - As she’s set to assume her post and become Greece’s first female President, former top judge Katerina Sakellaropoulou said she’s putting at the top of her list reaching out to Greeks who fled during a long economic crisis to come back.

Sakellaropoulou said she wants to create a brain gain by reversing the brain drain that saw the country lose hundreds of thousands who fled, among them young skilled and educated professionals, college graduates and entrepreneurs.

As many as 500,000 left Greece to find work and a better life after the crisis began in 2010 and saw successive governments impose brutal austerity measures as conditions to get three international bailouts of 326 billion euros ($370.72 billion.)

Some 90 percent were college graduates and 60 percent had postgraduate degrees and 86 percent of those who left during the exodus were under 40 years old, according to a survey by ICAP, with most saying they wouldn’t return permanently.

In January this year, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) said it was working to also try to get people to return to Greece as the New Democracy government was helping accelerate a recovery by seeking foreign investors and cutting taxes, before the coronavirus scare has unsettled expectations.

For Sakellaropoulou, the quest will be to convince the young who left to return to their homeland as the government said it was also moving to offer incentives to get them to come back, including higher pay for their skill sets.

Under an ambitious scheme revealed in January and called 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 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.

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.”

The question is what will bring these young professionals back to Greece, and the answer may not be as simple as well-paid jobs, although that is an important part of the equation.

Lack of meritocracy and transparency is the top reason given for going abroad in the ICAP survey, ahead of economic concerns with Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) seen key.

The 2019 Global Talent Competitiveness Index (GTCI) published by Insead, also sheds some indirect light on the brain drain problem in Greece and on the challenges that must be overcome to reverse it.

According to the survey, Greece ranks 1st in physician density, 2nd in tertiary education enrollment, and 10th in availability of scientists and engineers. At the same time, the country ranks low on key indicators of workplace meritocracy: 93rd for pay to productivity, 77th for professional, merit-based management, and 86th for delegation of authority.

Andreas Yannopoulos, founder of the InvestGR Forum, recently published an op-ed on the brain gain question and comments:

“It is encouraging to see that the new President of the Republic is making brain gain a priority. To bring young Greek professionals back, we need to create more job opportunities, but also a merit-based work environment where they can grow professionally. FDI can be an important driver of both.”

InvestGR Forum, organized for the 3rd consecutive year, is the Forum for constructive dialogue between C-level executives of foreign companies operating in Greece and key representatives from the political, institutional and academic spheres. A special panel at the upcoming Forum on June 24 will examine how to turn brain drain to brain gain.