Brain drain in Spain: interview with one of the young professionals who has left the country.

In an article about “Spain’s lost generation of graduates“, The Guardian recently reported that rising unemployment was leading to an exodus of young Spaniards looking for better opportunities abroad on a scale not seen since the 1960s. This massive departure of educated and professional young people looking for better pay or living conditions is a source of concern for many, although the exact numbers are not easy to figure out according to a recent article in Actualidad Económica (in Spanish).

Experts disagree both on the volume and the consequences of this “brain drain”. They agree on the causes as unemployment among graduates aged 29 or under is running at 19%. Regarding the consequences, some experts are extremely pessimistic, considering that the amount of money spent on the education of those graduates is lost as many will tend to stay abroad, while others believe that those young people will some day come back to Spain with a set of personal, professional and languages skills that will benefit to the economy and to the society.

Sustainability is directly affected by this “exodus” as Human Capital Management is a key element to build a sustainable business. Companies should include in their sustainability strategy the way they plan to get the resources they need in the long-term. Nothing can confirm the prediction that those young professionals will come back to Spain after they’ve developed their skills abroad. At least, a company shouldn’t rely this hope. Instead, a sustainable business should include in their recruitment strategies how they will target Spanish professionals who live abroad.

I’ve interviewed Alex, one of those young professional who recently decided to move to Germany, to understand why he decided to leave Spain and what spanish companies  can learn from this:

Aequology: Hello Alex, can you tell us who you are and where you work?
AM: Hi, my name is Alejandro Martinez, and I am employed by, Spanish division of ,  German leader in online sales for prescription glasses, sunglasses, and contact lenses. The company, a personal project launched by Dirk Graber with little capital investment, currently has over 140 employees. A successful business story and a new capital injection has led Mister Spex to venture on an international strategy. After launching projects in France and the UK, the company has recently placed its eye on the Spanish market because of its promising future in e-commerce on a mid-term basis. Mister Spex’s headquarters, located in Berlin, host fully autonomous IT, logistics, customer service and marketing departments. I personally work in the marketing department as an SEO specialist, and combine these tasks with website content creation and management.

Aequology: Why did you decided to move to Germany?
AM: Coming to Germany was both a personal and a professional project. Although I had been in love with Berlin for a few years, I wasn’t strong or brave enough to go for it. The tremendous financial crisis in Spain and the fact that I wasn’t enjoying my personal project as a translator brought me to travel to the only European that enjoyed economic growth in 2010. Besides a promising environment, numerous government aids and an alternative lifestyle that I am extremely attracted to, Berlin hosts numerous start-ups that make the effort of taking risks and train motivated people who are eager to learn and renew themselves. My experience tells me that this kind of approach would be absolutely inconceivable in Spain. Generally, German companies do not focus on short term benefit, but undertake actions believing they will be positive in the long run.

Aequology: How’s the workplace in Germany compared to Spain?
AM: Besides German companies’ predisposition to undertake risks, I have sensed that managers and administration boards are much more open to suggestions. If you have a good idea, they will take it and make the best possible effort to execute it. Besides, I feel lucky because, although I work in the marketing department and Scrum methodology was initially conceived for the IT departments, Mister Spex decided to apply it to the whole company. This method allows projects coming from management to be carried out in a transversal way, communication is 100% open, and, consequently, motivating your peers, feeling integrated in the group, and identifying mistakes becomes much easier. To some extent, this reflects that, indeed, innovating in Germany is much easier than in Spain.
I would also like to highlight that e-commerce, an incredibly attractive field for all countries due to its low investment costs and high profitability, was solidly established in Germany quite some time ago and is now working at full speed. Te constant news informing about the German’s urgent need for technicians and computer engineers are the best indication of this fact. Focusing earlier on this sector has allowed Germany to remain one of most powerful and solid economies, since they have managed to diversify their economy.
Last, I would like to highlight that in Germany it is the companies who assume the biggest risk. In order to have a hired person with a net monthly wage of 1.000 Euro, companies must provide private insurance, pay higher taxes, and provide social benefits, among other things. This does not only allow workers (who, in turn, pay 40% of their salary in taxes) to be aware of the social network supporting them and preventing them from being socially excluded if they become unemployed, but is also a useful tool for the German economy to maneuver because the government always has available funds. In my opinion, the German’s financial system is the key to them being, by large, the strongest country in Europe despite the high immigration rate and tremendous social costs, which would be inconceivable for other countries. I can’t think of a better place to be in Berlin right now!

Aequology: Thanks Alex!

Is road safety a relevant CSR issue?

Photo: José Cuervo Elorza @Flickr

The Commission on Road Safety, a Non-Standing Committee of the Spanish Congress of Deputies, has approved unanimously a motion urging the Government to include road safety as part of  Corporate Social Responsibility, in an effort to involve companies in the prevention of work-related traffic accidents. The initiative calls for the Executive to make appropriate amendments in the Law on Prevention of Occupational Risks to include the assessment and the prevention of traffic accidents that occur as a result of work activity or commuting. According to the Committee’s recommendations, companies would have to report on their progresses on the prevention of work-related accidents and carry out studies and evaluations to identify – and fight – their causes. The Committee also calls for the registration of work-related traffic accidents, a better coordination between the private and public entities involved, and security improvements in work-related travel. Finally, it asks for the creation of a “quality label”, awarded by the competent institutions and agencies, which would support the company’s commitment in preventing accidents among their employees. As an incentive for the employer,  the Committee recommends the creation of an annual prize that would reward best practices in the field of occupational health and the quality of the inclusion of road safety plans in the Corporate Social Responsibility strategy of the companies.

This news has been received with mixed feelings in Spain, both by companies and the CSR community alike. One of the reasons, as stated by Professor Antonio Argandoña in his blog , is that this type of initiatives is a distraction from the “really important” CSR topics and that an “award” won’t change anything. According to other comments, it is the role of the Government to deal with road safety. I don’t agree at all with those points of view. I do believe that road safety is a valid material issue for businesses, a clear area of concern for their internal and external stakeholders and has potentially a huge impact, economic, social and environmental on the companies themselves and the society in general. In Spain, businesses lose thousands of working hours each year due to medical leaves of absence related to road accidents, that also cost thousands of lives. Industry research shows that typically workplace injury costs are met 40% by the employee, 30% by the employer and 30% by the community as a whole. The human cost is high, the financial cost as well. Corporate reputation is also affected by employees driving behaviour. Did it ever happen to you to observe a dangerous driver in a company car, or truck, bearing the logo of their employer? What was your reaction? The impact on environment is high too, not only due to bad driving behaviours, generating huge amounts of CO2, but also because of accidents involving dangerous goods or substances. 

In a recent post, CSR expert and author Elaine Cohen, writes that she believes that, in the next generation of GRI indicators, “G4”, “other issues that are not specifically covered in G3, should be considered, such as the issue of road safety and how companies manage employees who spend a lot of time on the road for work purposes, a significant source of fatalities and other accidents which endanger not only employees but the general public“. I couldn’t agree more. Many companies already include road safety in their CSR plans and strategy. Some of them because they are directly or indirectly, related to the transportation industry, or vehicle manufacturers such as Ashok Leyland. Others, because they realize that there’s an opportunity for them to improve their workers well-being while impacting positively other areas such as the environment and public safety. It is much better for an organisation to be promoting a good news safety story such as winning an award, than it is to have to react to and suppress the outcomes of a major incident. Those companies also realize that their initiatives directly impact their bottom line and that they can gain a competitive advantage by being ahead of more reactive organisations.

World Health Organisation data suggests that approximately 1.2 of the 5 million global injury deaths each year are road crashes. It’s clear that road safety is a major social issue. I believe that it is also a business issue. What do you think?

Notes from the volcano: the current state of renewable energy in Spain

Last December, Spain clearly established itself as the world leader in renewable energy by exporting electricity to its neighbour France for the first time. Heavy rain and strong winds during 2010 have boosted renewables – principally hydro, wind and solar power – that managed to meet 35% of Spanish demand last year.

Mount TeideI spent the last week in Tenerife, the largest and most populous of the seven Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago located just off the northwest coast of mainland Africa. My main objective was to discover Mount Teide, the highest elevation of Spain, 3718 m., a World Heritage Site that is the third largest volcano in the world from its base. I also wanted to check on the development of local projects for renewable energy.

“How many architects does it take to save the world?” asks Colin Kirby a British journalist who lives in Tenerife. ” Well, he says, you can start by inviting 397 from 38 countries, hand-pick the best 25 and let them loose on a 14 year project.”

That’s exactly what the ITER, the Institute of Technology and Renewable Energies, founded by the Tenerife Island Government in 1990 to promote applied research in the field of renewable energy, did. The project, that started in 1995, culminated last year in the launch of 25 innovative bioclimatic homes.
The houses, heralded as the “green architecture of the future”, generate zero carbon emissions, are self-sufficient and do not depend on external energy sources. They are also Tenerife’s commitment to responsible tourism, a project that aims to encourage sustainable practices throughout the tourism industry and interaction with the local culture. The houses, but also the visitors centre, that has a selection of rooms and a spacious auditorium for training, talks and conferences, can be rented.

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit a dozen of these 25 houses. They are simply amazing. Facing the Atlantic Ocean in a natural setting worthy of a visit, with some of the most beautiful and least known beaches of the island, the site is composed by a total of 25 detached single-family houses in a plot of land of nearly 50,000 m2 facing south (first of a series of passive solutions to improve energy efficiency), designed by architects from around the world. The price for these houses rental goes from 200 to 300 Euros per night. Each house can accommodate up to 6 people.
ITER also has three wind farms in operation, testing grounds for renewable technologies and a desalination plant among other facilities.

The Institute has a major role to play, locally, but also at the global level to promote renewables. Locally, the island of Tenerife, with a permanent population of just over one million, that can increase up to 1.5 million during peak tourist season, is relying mostly on imported diesel, resulting in very high-priced electricity, to meet local demand, in excess of 800 MW on peak power generation, with a significant carbon signature.
At a more global level, the result of the ITER long-term project is a model of residential complex that can be exported and reproduced anywhere in the world.

Tenerife is not short of energy-related projects. Research is underway to see whether heat from Tenerife’s active volcano can be harnessed as a new renewable energy source. The study is being carried out by Australia-based Petratherm on behalf of ITER. It is aimed at displacing and/or avoiding the island’s reliance on imported fuel sources while concurrently reducing the island’s carbon footprint.

According to a recent update by the Australian company, its local arm, Petratherm España, in conjunction with its 50% exploration partner Enel Green Power, has finalized the selection of a highly prospective geothermal target on the active volcanic island of Tenerife. Petratherm España is now undergoing the drilling approval process in preparation for a planned geothermal test scheduled for the 2nd quarter of 2011.

A local resident who knows the project well says that he “personally would rather see the money spent on research into bio-diesel fuel harvesting using algae farming.” Tenerife, he says, “would be an ideal place to farm algae due to the amount of sunshine we have here”. He explains that Algae can grow prolifically and double it’s volume in 24 hours under the right conditions. According to him, Algae also absorbs greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide so there would be a trade-off here with carbon emissions from the continued use of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels will always be necessary, the problem is that they are becoming depleted and Algae farming could be a great solution for Tenerife. Algae farming can produce bio-diesel fuels and ethanol very cheaply with some very positive ecological benefits.
He concludes that “this sort of technology is already being used in Mexico with some great results, a lot of the research has already been done so it would not be costly to investigate this option.”

Renewables are currently at the center of public and media attention in Spain, not only for the fact that it started selling energy to France for the fist time but also because of the political debate around them.
Javier García Breva, a top executive at Arnaiz Consulting, former MP and President of the Fondation for Renewables, said recently to The Guardian, about the performance of Spain in renewables that “even five years ago no one would have believed these figures were possible. No one expected renewables to grow so fast. They have unlimited potential.
However, both the Spanish Government and the opposition alike don’t seem to share this vision of the future. The former has recently introduced a highly criticized series of measures that limit the, generous, subsidies to the photovoltaic (PV) industry, while the latter has joined the chorus of those who say the world is betting on other technologies while “we’re running it alone with renewables.”

The Government’s Royal Decree 14/2010, the law that proposes to retroactively limit the number of production hours that are eligible to receive the government’s feed-in tariff, has probably a lot to do with internal and external pressures coming from the fossil fuel lobbies and with the drastic cutbacks imposed by the current economic turmoil.
The opposition’s attitude seems to be the consequence of a narrow-minded political strategy due to the upcoming local, regional and general elections.

Finally, the greening of the Spanish grid, unfortunately, has not benefited the consumer, with prices likely to rise by 9% in 2011. The government sets electricity prices which have no direct correlation with production costs. This policy doesn’t help as the debate about the country’s strategical choices is biased by political considerations. More transparency, regarding the cost and benefits of each source of energy, is urgently needed.