All photos by Yan Pekar.
Fiona Garvey is vice president of a software company.
It’s a Barcelona conundrum, a question that foreigners and locals have been asking themselves for decades: Does a person have to sell their professional soul in order to live in this city? An apparent lack of career opportunities combined with low wages have forced many people to choose between quality of life and professional success, with many electing to return to their home countries when the time comes to get down to some serious work. The recent economic crisis intensified the situation, leading to an exodus of foreign residents in search of a more prospreous life elsewhere. Those who have chosen to stay may well be wondering what their prospects are for the future and whether the apparent economic recovery will enable them to stay in the city without compromising their professional life.
During the past seven years, Spain has seen the ranks of its unemployed swell to epic proportions, from eight percent in 2007 to 22 percent in July 2015—down from its peak of nearly 27 percent at the beginning of 2013. The country's youth has been hit particularly hard—nationally, the current unemployment rate is 48 percent amongst 16-24 year olds. This has more than tripled since 2007, when it hovered at around 13 percent. In the European Union, only Greece has more unemployed people than Spain (25 percent). And, when you take into account that the average for the whole EU region is 11 percent and that in the UK, the unemployment rate is just 5.6 percent, the grass certainly starts to look greener elsewhere.
Barcelona has fared slightly better than the rest of Spain, with unemployment standing at 19 percent today—still a long way from the EU average, despite the city's dynamic tourist sector. Although things are certainly improving for the whole of Spain, the Catalan capital is still not an obvious choice for anyone looking to move up the career ladder.
And not only is Barcelona a tough place to find a job, it’s particularly hard to secure a well-paying job. With minimum wage sitting at around €5 per hour and a minimum annual salary of €9,000 (public sector), it’s no surprise that when it comes to the job scene many people have simply given up or are jumping ship, often to other countries.
Yet for those willing to stick it out, dig a little deeper and persist, finding a decent paying job and a stimulating career is not impossible. Barcelona is ripe with interesting, competitive and innovative options; tapping into them just requires the right know-how.
Anna works as a Project Assistant for a global health institute.
“This place is very much who you know,” said Seattle native, Anna Oje. Currently working as a Project Assistant for a global health institute dedicated to scientific research aimed at closing the gaps in health disparities around the world, Oje recounts how hard it was to make a living when she first arrived almost 10 years ago. “I came here lost,” Oje explained. “I was recently out of a relationship in the US and was heartbroken. I came to Europe for six months to find myself and discover my path.”
Reminiscing about her smorgasbord of jobs which included taking inventory during the night shift in industrial stores across Spain, to working in hostels and events, to flipping burgers at Betty Ford’s and even running her own ‘black market’ property rental company (before Airbnb hit the scene), at one point managing 13 apartments on her own.
Almost a decade later, the 35-year old said she’s ‘happy as a clam’ and living her dream job. The secret, claimed Oje, was perseverance.
As in all cities around the world, determination and persistence are important attributes when looking for work. In Barcelona, however, they are essential. “We’re still set in traditional ways in Spain,” said Marta Lopez, International Accounts Manager for Digital Minds, a recruitment firm specialising in digital marketing, start-ups and advertising companies. Based in the UK, the Catalan native says Spain isn’t at the same level when it comes to jobs as some of the other countries her company works in.
“We’re not as organised in Spain. Organisations think that the right people will come knocking on their door, just because of the company name. They don’t realise that they need exposure online.” Lopez explained that there’s no central database for jobs in Barcelona like what exists in other countries. In the UK it's possible to find jobs through a variety of ways such as LinkedIn, job forums and company websites. In Barcelona, jobs aren’t as visible and, according to Lopez, this is a weakness in the sector.
There’s a huge disconnect in terms of the jobs that are available and the ones being offered, thus making it harder for viable candidates to find suitable positions. Lopez thinks the only way to speed up the process of change, is “for the candidate to set new expectations and be more competitive in the market.”
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE COMPETITIVE?
“It is important to have an element of fearlessness,” said Irish native, Fiona Garvey. “The competition is tough and to get senior roles in Barcelona, you often need to get out of your comfort zone and be assertive and proactive.” With 14 years of life in Barcelona under her belt, the 41 year old has some impressive positions on her CV, working for various multinationals. However, the current vice president of one of the biggest software download companies in the world says it hasn’t always been easy landing the jobs she’s wanted. Garvey recounts the 10 months it took her to find a position before getting a role in her current company.
“It was frustrating and challenging, and it was a real stress. At times it seemed like nothing would ever turn up. In the end two great opportunities presented themselves.” In addition to patience and luck, Garvey maintains that if you want to get ahead you need to believe in yourself and be prepared to use all avenues including your network, friends as well as recruitment offices, and proactively contact companies you’d like to work for. “Don’t expect to find your dream job on LinkedIn.”
Willem Van Oort and Brian Heinen, founders of Local Producer, an events company, echo Garvey’s sentiments; it’s about putting yourself out there and exhausting all possible paths, especially if you want to have a competitive, professional edge.
In response to Barcelona’s disconnect between ‘jobs on offer and jobs available’, Van Oort and Heinen have created the Guiri Business Conference. On October 9th and 10th, they’ll be hosting the first event of its kind, aimed at bringing ‘supply and demand together’ and helping to give both people and jobs increased exposure.
“We have people looking for jobs and others who have jobs but can’t find candidates. We’re bringing all the parts together so people can talk to each other,” said Heinen, an American native who has been calling Barcelona home for almost 12 years.
As founder of the Guiri Business Professional Network for Foreigners, a platform designed to facilitate professional networking across Spain, he’s seen the market evolve, and although he recognises that it’s still not at 2006-2007 levels, Heinen says business is picking up. The biggest difference between 10 years ago and today is that now, people have to be more focused.
“Years ago there were very entrepreneurial people coming here saying, ‘Hey, let’s get involved in real estate, let’s do this, let’s do that…’ Now people are focusing their skills on opportunities that are sustainable instead of just doing anything.”
Jordan Susselman launched Hi. This Is Barcelona.
WHERE SHOULD YOU FOCUS YOUR ENERGY?
Both on the industry and skills front, there are several ways to hone in and concentrate your efforts. When it comes to current, ‘hot sectors’ in the city, the crisis has given way to plenty of new opportunities.
In 2006, when San Diego native, Jordan Susselman, launched, Hi. This Is Barcelona, a boutique touring company providing private, customised experiences throughout Catalunya, he was one of only three others in the sector. Today, the 36 year old Barcelona ‘veteran’ of 15 years says the list of tour providers is endless and it’s something he attributes greatly to the crisis.
“A lot of companies who are now our direct competition began during the Spanish recession. They stopped what they were doing and went into tourism.” In what used to be one of the industry capitals of Europe, Susselman says that today, so much has changed.
“Now it’s all about tourism, tourism, tourism,” he stated. “If you’re looking for a job, this is a great sector with endless possibilities, there’s just a lot of competition.”
Dutch native, Kai Melchior Hensley agreed, saying that when he worked in the hospitality industry during the crisis, he barely noticed a thing as he was working in tourist-frequented places. As a seasoned waiter, who’s worked mostly in restaurants since arriving in 2009, Hensley says unlike in Amsterdam, people in Barcelona live from the hospitality industry. “In Holland it’s a student job, something to have extra money while studying. Here, people do it as a full time profession; they’re not studying on the side.” Hensley said for those wanting to work in restaurants, the key is to look for places that you know are going to be busy all year round (not on the beach), and to target establishments with a more international ambience. “Those are the places where you can get away with not speaking so much Spanish and where you’ll get more tips.”
Kai Melchior Hensley works as a full-time waiter.
Although Hensley didn’t speak a word of Spanish or Catalan upon arrival, he advises anyone coming here to learn the language. “It was very frustrating that when I first arrived, my CV was good enough but my language skills weren’t.”
Hensley said another frustrating factor when he arrived and one that still holds true today is the Spanish salaries. For a full-time restaurant job (40 hours a week) he is paid €1,200 per month, often not getting paid for overtime and with very few tips. As much as the industry’s expanding, Hensley thinks that salaries have actually decreased since he’s been here.
Spain’s infamous low wages are what have propelled people like Susselman to start their own ventures. “I realised that if I was really going to establish a life on the other side of the world from where I’m from," said Susselman, "I had to have a job that allowed me to have a flexible schedule and give me enough money to take advantage of that schedule to travel to the US for weddings and funerals. On a normal Spanish salary, that wasn’t possible.”
In response to both the low incomes and the crisis, more and more entrepreneurs have come out of the woodwork to wage their bets. This has resulted in another booming professional sector—the world of startups and technology. Barcelona is one of the fastest-growing cities for startups in Europe—a surge largely instigated by the onset of the crisis which has forced people to take matters into their own hands when it comes to jobs and salaries. It’s an industry that’s creating jobs and attracting talent, thus helping to refuel the economy.
Yet, industry aside, when it comes to skills and focusing one’s efforts, one of the best ways to thrive in Barcelona is to bring what you know to the table.
“Eight years ago, how many hamburger places were there in this city?” laughed Oje. “They’d bring you a small round thing, with no bread, they had no idea how to ‘do the hamburger’. Today there are tons of places.” According to Oje, once you find something that works, if you do it well, you can grow it into a success. It’s about identifying a need and then using your expertise from wherever you’re from to make it work.
And for long-time foreign residents who have seen the city evolve into what it is today, keeping things sustainable is what it’s all about. “The hope is that over time the local economy continues to develop and mature so we have more sustainable jobs,” said Heinen.
So does one have to choose between quality of life and their career if they’re intent on living in Barcelona? Ultimately, professional success is subjective, but the tide does seem to be turning, and those who have weathered the crisis and cast their anchor are hoping they won’t have to choose.
“The key is to really keep believing,” said Garvey. “I have been really scared, but the truth is, despite challenges, all my friends who really wanted to stay here succeeded in staying. For me the experience and learning has been great. If you believe and want to stay, try all avenues and something will come.”
WHERE THE JOBS ARE
Spain’s top sectors for english speakers
Customer service and sales assistance: Most call centres are looking for a variety of languages including: English, Finnish, German, Danish and a host of others. One of the main customer service companies that hires often is Sellbytel.
Engineering: A recent study by recruitment company Manpower, found that engineering was the most sought-after qualification in Spain and that most international companies don’t require you to speak Spanish.
IT: There are plenty of tech jobs aimed at foreigners, including software testers and programmers. Manpower claims that local Spanish recruiters are looking for iOS and Android developers, SAP experts as well as SEO and SEM strategists.
Online Marketing: International internet companies often require English-speaking account managers as well as community and social media management jobs.
Language teaching: It’s something many foreigners do when they first arrive. Teaching your native tongue is a relatively quick and easy way to earn an income. English and German are the most sought-after languages.