International labor mobility datapoint of the day

By Felix Salmon
September 2, 2011

One of the main reasons for the euro experiment failing is the obvious fact that the eurozone doesn’t have a common language. An optimal currency area needs labor mobility — areas without jobs need to provide workers for the areas with demand for them. But it’s hard to get a good job in Germany if you don’t speak German. And so something quite astonishing is going on:

In 2006, only 156 Angolan visas were issued to southbound Portuguese, but in 2010, the figure was 23,787.

To put that number in perspective, total emigration from Portugal — to all the countries in the rest of the world combined — ranged between 12,000 and 17,000 a year in the 1980s. Portugal is a very small country, and it hasn’t seen this level of emigration since the 1960s.

One reason: for skilled workers, a job in Angola pays a lot more than a similar job in Portugal: for a civil engineer, we’re talking four times as much, according to one Portuguese entrepreneur in Luanda. And there’s similar demand for skilled workers in fast-growing Brazil, too.

From a global perspective, this is good news. Developing countries like Angola and Brazil get to leverage western European education, while underemployed Portuguese find good jobs abroad. It’s an example of the cross-border labor market actually working.

From a European perspective, on the other hand, there’s a lot to worry about here — the PIGS aren’t going to recover if they lose the highly productive workers they spent so much to educate. But they can hardly wall those workers in and prevent them from moving to greener pastures. The only solution is domestic job creation. And that’s hard to do when you’re on an austerity regime.

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