Unemployed Greeks Look To Create Their Own Jobs

Apr 10, 2012
Originally published on April 10, 2012 7:44 am

In Greece, more than 21 percent of the working-age population is jobless. For Greeks under age 25, the rate is more than double that.

Some young Greeks are frightened that the economy, now in free fall, will take years to recover, so they're leaving for jobs abroad. A few entrepreneurs, however, are trying to start businesses during the worst recession in decades.

A magnet for these young entrepreneurs is CoLab, a business incubator in a weathered building near the Athens Cathedral in the city center. CoLab opened in 2009, with just one occupant — a Spanish travel writer.

Now, it has 45 occupants including software and programming whizzes, Web developers, corporate responsibility consultants and even a couple of yogis.

One of the stars here is Panos Papadopoulos, a 28-year-old computer scientist. He's the co-founder of BugSense, which tracks bugs in mobile phone applications. BugSense is already making a profit and has Silicon Valley investors.

"We have 5,000 developers from Japan to Argentina," Papadopoulos says. "Some of our customers include Samsung, Skype [and] VMware."

He mentors younger entrepreneurs like 25-year-old John Katsiotis, who co-founded a new company called Parking Defenders. It's developing a smartphone application that helps people find parking spots in Athens.

The app allows users to notify each other when they're about to vacate a spot. "I see a list of all the users that are interested, and I choose one," he says. "So that person can come and take my spot."

Katsiotis thinks the idea has potential, since parking is so scarce in Athens that people sometimes leave their cars on sidewalks.

A Need To Be More Creative

Dimitris Tsigos, who leads a young entrepreneurs association in Greece, also likes the idea. He says he especially likes that Katsiotis is exploring his idea creatively, something young Greeks don't do enough of, according to Tsigos.

Many of his own relatives thought he was nuts when he started his successful e-learning company, Virtual Trip, 12 years ago, when he was still in college. An aunt told him a real job meant working for the government.

"The Greek dream was that you are hired in the public sector," Tsigos says. "You go to work at 8, you leave at 12, and you get 1,200 euros."

That's about $1,600 a month. Not everyone worked these easy hours, but at least public sector jobs used to be safe. The constitution protected public workers from getting fired.

That changed in 2010, when Greece took billions of dollars in bailout loans to keep from defaulting on more than $400 billion in debt. International lenders — who include the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank — are demanding that Greece fire 150,000 public workers over the next three years to cut costs. Austerity measures also forced more than 100,000 businesses to close last year.

That's left young Greeks with virtually no options, Tsigos says.

"That's why they are frightened," he says. "That's why you see all these demonstrations with people expressing anger, because they're frightened. Because they see all [these plans] they had in their mind is now destroyed."

He says he hears from about 10 young entrepreneurs a week, but says that's not enough to call it a trend.

Huge Job Losses

Most young Greeks say they feel adrift in an economy that shed more than 300,000 jobs last year. Venetia Kogkou, 31, lost her job as a librarian two years ago. Many of her friends are also unemployed.

Kogkou says she's sent out hundreds of resumes, with no response.

"When I was a little girl, my mom used to tell me that if I didn't study, I'd end up working at the supermarket," Kogkou says. "But you know what? I can't even get a job there."

She and her friends say they see no option but to leave Greece.

John Katsiotis, the young computer scientist, says he's going to stay. His smartphone app on parking hasn't made any money yet, and he's not sure it ever will.

"When you don't have a job, that means you have plenty of time," he says. "You should do something with that time."

He says he wants to use this time to create a job, even in this morbid economy. The Greek economy is now in its fifth year of recession, and economists have predicted more years of stagnation.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Greece has signed on to a debt deal that averted a global financial crisis, but at a price. Austerity measures are hammering an already weak economy, and youth unemployment in Greece is now nearing 50 percent. Yet some people see opportunity amidst the chaos. Joanna Kakissis reports from Athens.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: It's a busy day at CoLab, a business incubator in a weathered, old building near the Athens cathedral. The offices are full. CoLab opened in late 2009 with just one occupant. Now, it has 45. Some of the start-ups here already have profits and Silicon Valley investors. Like BugSense, which makes a software bug-tracking service for mobile applications. Its co-founder is Panos Papadopoulos, a 28-year-old computer scientist.

PANOS PAPADOPOULOS: We have 5,000 developers from Japan to Argentina; and some of our customers include Samsung, Skype, VM Ware....

KAKISSIS: Papadopoulos mentors younger entrepreneurs. One is John Katsiotis, who's 25. He co-founded a new company called Parking Defenders. The company is developing a smartphone application that helps people find parking spots in Athens.

JOHN KATSIOTIS: I'm in my office; I'm going to leave in five minutes. So the spot becomes available to everyone that is interested in that area. I see a list of all the users that are interested, and I choose one. So that person can come and take my spot.

KAKISSIS: Parking is so scarce in Athens that people leave their cars on sidewalks. So Katsiotis believes the idea has some potential.

But potential is something young Greeks rarely explore, says Dimitris Tsigos. He leads a young entrepreneurs association here. Many of his relatives thought he was nuts when he started his now-successful e-learning company 12 years ago, when he was still in college. An aunt told him a real job meant working for the government.

DIMITRIS TSIGOS: The Greek dream was that you are hired in the public sector. You go to work at 8; you leave at 12. And you get 1,200 euros.

KAKISSIS: That's about $1,600 a month. And now, not everyone worked those easy hours, but at least public sector jobs used to be safe. The constitution protected public workers from getting fired. That changed when Greece was forced to take billions of dollars in bailout loans in 2010.

International lenders are forcing Greece to fire 150,000 public workers over the next three years, to cut costs. Austerity measures also forced 100,000 private businesses to close last year. That's left young Greeks with virtually no options, Tsigos says.

TSIGOS: That's why you see all these demonstrations, with people expressing anger, because they're frightened. Because they see that all this plan they had in their mind, now is destroyed.

KAKISSIS: He says he now hears from about 10 young entrepreneurs a week. But he admits that's not enough to call it a trend.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

KAKISSIS: Most young Greeks say they feel adrift. Venetia Kogkou, who's 31, is sharing an evening picnic at the beach with her friends. She lost her job as a librarian two years ago. She says she's sent out hundreds of resumes.

VENETIA KOGKOU: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: When I was a little girl, my mom used to tell me that if I didn't study, I'd end up working at the supermarket, she says. But you know what? I can't even get a job there.

Most of her friends are also unemployed. They see no option but to leave Greece.

KAKISSIS: Back at CoLab, John Katsiotis says he's staying in Greece. He's the young computer scientist who's developing that smartphone app about parking.

KATSIOTIS: When you don't have a job, that means that you have plenty of time. You should do something with that time.

KAKISSIS: He says he's going to use that time to create a job with his company, Parking Defenders. The Greek economy is in its fifth year of recession. He knows he has a tough road ahead.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.