Spain’s unemployment prompts a look elsewhere

Six months after being laid off from a surveying job, Manuel Martin has had it with Spain.

The construction industry here is moribund, he said, and he has no expectation that it will rebound anytime soon. Pausing during a bicycle ride in the suburbs of Madrid, Martin and a friend noted the for-sale signs displayed at some of the apartment buildings and point to building projects that were abandoned mid-stream.

It is even worse elsewhere in the country, and Martin said he has cast his sights on engineering jobs in Canada, Germany or oil-rich Algeria. The upcoming Olympics in Britain might even provide an escape.

“There are lots of jobs in London,” said Martin, who’s surviving so far — and making his mortgage payments — on his severance and unemployment benefits.

The economic crisis that has been roiling Europe for more than two years is increasingly becoming a jobs crisis. Unemployment in the euro zone rose in March to a record 10.9 percent, up from 10.8 percent in February and representing 169,000 lost jobs in the past month, the Eurostat statistics agency reported Wednesday. Unemployment in the 17 nations that share the euro currency has increased a full percentage point in the past year.

Economists warn that job losses could depress growth further as the ranks of laid-off workers cut their spending and weaken the demand for goods and services throughout the region — and pay less in taxes to their strapped governments.

The European difficulties contrast with the recovery in the United States, where economic growth is stronger and the economy has been adding jobs.

The numbers have raised concern among economic analysts that Europe’s crisis may run longer and deeper than expected. The political debate is shifting from how to cut government debt to how to encourage economic growth.

Upcoming elections in Greece and France are being looked at as barometers of the broader European mood. Incumbent parties in both countries face stiff challenges after supporting austerity programs championed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and, in Greece’s case, demanded by the International Monetary Fund.

Part of the solution to Europe’s unemployment troubles could come from migration if workers like Martin leave for countries with lower jobless rates. Among the euro-zone nations, the unemployment rates range from 4 percent in Austria to 24.1 percent in Spain.

Worker migration can help smooth out the differences in an area that shares the same currency — whether it’s a currency union or a single country. It would be akin to workers in the northeastern United States flocking to employment in the Sun Belt, as they did not long ago.

Citing figures from the National Statistics Institute, El Pais newspaper reported that an estimated 50,521 Spaniards left the country between January and September of last year for jobs in other countries — a 36 percent increase over the year before.

Blanca Rojas teaches at a job-training school in Madrid, and she said conditions have gotten so bad that she can’t even place her students in internships. Unions are adamant that any available work go to their members. When students enroll in programs for training electricians or plumbers or other skilled trades, she is blunt with them: Don’t expect to find work after graduating.

“I don’t expect it to get any better for five or six years,” she said, as she and her husband pushed a baby carriage through the Ensanche de Vallecas suburb.

The government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has been pushing for changes in local labor market rules that economists say are needed for Spain to generate more jobs. It is considered difficult and expensive to lay off workers, and extensive job protections make companies reluctant to hire.

The recession also is expected to force down wages and prices and, over time, make Spanish exports more competitive and the country more attractive to investors and tourists.

As Martin set out on his bike ride, he pointed to the nearby hills. He said that U.S. casino magnate Sheldon Adelson was considering the site for a Eurovegas resort — a $20 billion, multi-hotel complex to be built over a decade. Spanish officials have said they are willing to relax some of the country’s labor and tax laws to secure the project — Madrid and Barcelona are considered the most likely locations — and the tens of thousands of jobs it represents.

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