Europe
1:28 pm
Mon April 9, 2012

Lack Of Graduates Hampers Portugal's Recovery

As Portugal tries to dig out of its financial mess, it's confronted with a sobering fact: Fewer than 30 percent of adult Portuguese have graduated from high school. Not college. High school.

And in a country that's been hit so hard by the economic crisis, even those with an education are struggling.

Ana Dias and Ruth Cardozo, both 27, are lifelong friends who now work together at a shoe store in Lisbon, the Portuguese capital. Cardozo dropped out of high school 10 years ago to take this job.

She says she quit school because she wanted to make her own money, and not rely on her parents. "Get a boyfriend and a house, those things," Cardozo says, laughing.

Her friend, on the other hand, stayed in school and then went to college. Dias earned a nursing degree but can't find work in a hospital. So she finds herself in the exact same job as her dropout friend, selling shoes.

"I spent money for years [to] graduate, and what about now?" Dias asks. "I'm here and ready, but no one grabs me to work."

Her friend adds: "She likes selling shoes, but it's not her thing, you know? It's not what she wants."

The tale of these two friends illustrates a deep crisis in Western Europe's poorest and least educated nation, where only 28 percent of Portuguese over the age of 30 have graduated from high school, according to government figures.

That's compared with 85 percent in Germany, and about 90 percent in the United States if GEDs, or General Educational Development degrees, are included.

After an EU bailout last year, Portugal needs to strengthen its economy to pay off its debts. But the startlingly low high school graduation rate is creating serious challenges and is likely to complicate the country's economic recovery.

Historical Disadvantages

Portugal was a military dictatorship through the 1970s. Back then, kids were required to attend school for just three years. Luis Pais Antunes is a former lawmaker who grew up during that era.

He says parents forced their children to work on farms or in factories, and that the country is still paying the price of history.

Typical Portuguese industries — shoe-stitching, wine-making or textiles — don't require a diploma. And Portugal was a late-bloomer in Europe, in terms of adding white-collar jobs, says economic historian Pedro Lains.

"Whereas most of Europe, the transformation from an agrarian society to an industrial and then service society was fully completed in the 1960s and 1970s," he says. "In Portugal that transformation occurred between 1950 and the year 2000, more or less."

Supply And Demand Imbalance

Since then, education requirements have increased in Portugal, and many more students graduate from high school these days. But now, amid Europe's debt crisis, there's a new problem: how to find jobs for those graduates. Lains says it's a simple question of supply and demand.

"The supply of education in the last 20 to 30 years has risen in a very rapid way. But the demand for education is another problem, and it depends on the strength of the economy — on economic growth, on structural change, on the dynamics of the economy," Lains says. "And with an economy that has been growing very slowly in the last 15 years and has been declining very sharply in the last two years, it's not a surprise that this mismatch occurs."

That mismatch is prompting graduates to go abroad for work, and some current students to drop out — which is allowed now at 16.

Even at universities, many students are dropping out, says Pedro Martims, a 22-year-old college student who works nights at a call center. His grades have suffered, and the idea of quitting school has crossed his mind, too.

"It's a big sacrifice," Martims says. "My father lost his job, and I have to help in my home also, so it's been quite difficult."

New Directions, Old Hopes

With a flood of cheap Asian imports, Portugal's textiles are no longer competitive. The country is hoping high-tech and areas such as wind energy can fuel the economy going forward. The challenge is to expand those industries by using both aging, less educated workers, and younger, sometimes overqualified ones.

Portugal's overall unemployment rate is about 14 percent, and the youth unemployment rate is 35 percent, according to the government. Those numbers are both above the pan-European averages, but still lower than numbers in Spain and Greece.

Back at the shoe store where she works, Dias, who has a nursing degree, is asked if she regrets her decision to stay in school.

"No, I don't regret it, because that was my dream, and I'm still chasing it. I don't know where or when, but I will get my reward someday," Dias says. "At least I think like that."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Portugal is the poorest country in Europe. It got an E.U. bailout earlier this year and now it needs to grow its economy to pay off its debts. But that's made harder by another dubious title Portugal holds: Europe's least educated country.

From Lisbon, Lauren Frayer reports on Portugal's low high school graduation rate.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Ana Dias and Ruth Cardozo are lifelong friends who now work together at a shoe store here in the Portuguese capital. Cardozo dropped out of high school 10 years ago, to take this job.

RUTH CARDOZA: I don't know. I think I quit because I want to have my money and not be asking my parents, you know. I think it was because of that, yeah. My boyfriend needs a house, things. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FRAYER: Her friend, Dias, on the other hand, stayed in school and then got a nursing degree, but can't find work in a hospital. So she finds herself in the exact same job as her drop-out friend, selling shoes.

ANA DIAS: I spent money for years getting graduated. And what about now? I'm here, ready - but no one grabs me to work.

CARDOZA: She likes selling shoes but it's not her thing. You know, it's not what she wants.

FRAYER: The tale of these two friends illustrates a deep crisis in Portugal. Only 28 percent of Portuguese over the age of 30 have graduated from high school. Not college - high school. That's compared to 85 percent in Germany and about 90 in the U.S., if you include GEDs.

Portugal was a military dictatorship through the 1970s. Back then, kids were required to go to school for just three years.

Luis Pais Antunes is a former lawmaker who grew up in that era.

LUIS PAIS ANTUNES: Young people was forced by their parents to work on agricultural or shoe factories. So we are still paying the price of some historical options.

FRAYER: Typical Portuguese industries - shoe-stitching, wine-making or textiles - don't require a diploma. And Portugal was a late-bloomer in Europe, in terms of adding white-collar jobs, says economic historian Pedro Lains.

PEDRO LAINS: Whereas most of Europe transformation from an agrarian society to an industrial, and then service society, was fully completed in the 1960s or 1970s, in Portugal that transformation occurred between 1950 and the year 2000, more or less.

FRAYER: Since then, education requirements have increased here and many more students graduate these days. But now, there's another problem in Europe's debt crisis: how to find jobs for those graduates. Lains says it's a simple question of supply and demand.

LAINS: And the supply of education in the last 20 to 30 years has risen in a very rapid way. And with an economy that has been growing very slowly in the last 15 years and has been declining very sharply in the last two years, it's not a surprise that this mismatch occurs.

FRAYER: That mismatch is prompting graduates to go abroad for work, and some current students to drop out, which is allowed now at 16.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

FRAYER: A crowd of college students showed up at an anti-austerity protest last month in Lisbon, complaining that the economy may force them to quit school.

Pedro Martims is going to class by day and works nights in a call center. His grades have suffered.

PEDRO MARTIMS: It's a big sacrifice, including my father lost his job. I have to help in my home also. So it's been quite difficult.

FRAYER: With a flood of cheap Asian imports, Portugal's textiles are no longer competitive. Things like high-tech or wind energy could fuel the economy going forward. The challenge is to grow those industries by using both aging, less-educated workers and younger, sometimes overqualified ones.

Back at the shoe store where she works, I ask Dias, the nurse, if she regrets her decision to stay in school.

DIAS: No, I don't regret because that was my dream and I am still chasing it. I don't know where...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DIAS: ...or when, but I will get my reward someday. At least I think like that.

FRAYER: For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.