Friday, 27 April 2007

Adapt, Learn Greek, Know Thyself

Venetia Kousia, Greek director of the head-hunting agency Manpower, unravels some of the mystery of the Greek labour market and explains how to win in it

Most repatriated Greeks and expatriate non-Greeks come to Greece for personal reasons, and turn to the labour market as a second priority. How can they maximise their advantages?

It depends on their priorities. If you are a lifestyle immigrant, scraping boat hulls in Kalamaki and writing poetry might make your day. It's different if you plan to support a family.

If you're in the latter category, it is important to learn Greek, partly in order to see things from the Greek point of view and become integrated, not marginalised. I can't come and say, 'I'm British, so I'll just look for work in St Lawrence.' What will you do when you meet Greek parents? Where can you go apart from St Lawrence? How will you learn from others? I'm not saying you should be a chameleon, but if you're not prepared to integrate you cannot succeed.

The Greek labour market is difficult for Greeks who have studied abroad and foreigners. Why?

It is the different culture. You have to be flexible. You can't just present yourself and say you're an expert. It's also a question of 'What do I want?' Do I want to enter a multinational company because I want to learn, or because I want my resume to say that I was at Toyota or IBM? Even if I wasn't a good employee people won't know.

What's the Greek attitude about working for a large multinational company?

There are various trends. The general social tendency is 'Let's get comfortable'. As times become harder, people have to try harder, but we're a long way from motivating ourselves to be better. Young people say, 'I paid so much for this postgraduate degree, when am I going to make it up?' Well, you can't make the money in two days.

We've seen that young people who've done a great deal of university study discover that a multinational company isn't what they thought it would be, or that their chosen profession isn't what they thought it would be. In Greece, the ambition is to find a permanent post. 

Why are Greeks so successful abroad?

Because they have broader horizons. Abroad people have learned that you put them on a track, so to speak, and they chug along. Whenever they encounter an obstacle, they stop and don't know what to do. The Greek has the opposite reaction. He won't ride on the rail. He goes hither and thither. So, if a Greek goes into a multinational company and actually has a manager good enough to keep him on track, because he has the ability to find solutions to problems, he excels. He is more creative. And whoever is creative lacks something in discipline. I often tell young recruits that the road to freedom runs through discipline and they look at me unable to understand that being tied to impulse is also a kind of bondage. 

What about the work ethic differences between the Greeks who have lived or studied abroad, and those who haven't?
It makes a difference to have worked abroad in a senior position, but it depends on the company and the individual. For instance, I know of some foreign-raised Greeks who went to work in a Greek public bank and were disappointed and left. I don't think the public sector can absorb foreign-trained people. You want to see the results of your work, but you are constantly overruled by the minister. You'll put up with it once or twice, but finally you'll say, 'I can't be a marionette.'

There are good cases, too, of people who were called into Greece to create startups or lead projects, and did so successfully because they didn't come in with arrogance but adapted to the local scene. No one likes arrogance, and the Greeks even less so. The successful people raised up their staff along with them, and I think that is an aspect of leadership.

What is the difference, in terms of work ethic, between Greek men and women?

Greek women, even today, haven't learned to be pushy when it comes to salary. In the UK, for instance, where single women are about 15 percent of the population and are thus main bread earners in their households, they learn to demand higher pay. Here, where women often work for pocket money so they can buy Gucci bags, they aren't. 

Pay is the same for men and women in the lower incomes, where everyone earns basic salary. But in career jobs, women earn less because they see their incomes as supplements to those of their husbands.
Then there is the question of what jobs women take - the less aggressive ones work in HR and PR and CSR. Few fight for the top jobs, which means that when an employer is choosing between ten applicants of whom only two are female, the odds are he'll hire one of the eight males. 

Is it an advantage to be good-looking?

I'm not, and I never found that to be a problem. The eyes have it. The soul ultimately speaks out. And if you're a good-looking flake, people will soon find out. I've heard of managers picking women on the basis of their legs. These things do happen. But they weren't picking a new CEO. They were picking promoters. Whom were they going to pick, ugly women? 

How do you connect the right sorts of people?

First of all, we filter out the lazy applicants.

But no one says they are lazy in their resume.

You can tell from the telephone screening; from their willingness to respond to questions; from how long they have been without work (for instance if a 25-year-old tells you they've been unemployed for a year because they couldn't find work, it's hard to believe it); from their willingness to submit to a three-hour office simulation. If it is summer and we call looking for applicants, many people have gone for a swim, to the cafe and so on. And in many cases people just turn down jobs.

Is there, then, real unemployment?

There is because there are people who don't even have basic skills. The labour market is a pyramid. At the bottom, where people have no skills, supply exceeds demand. Everyone wants to be at the top, where again supply outstrips demand. But in the middle, where companies are looking for competent middle management, there is enormous demand.

Why do we so often see young Greeks at the cafe with their cell phones, car keys and cigarettes, while Albanians paint their houses and pick their crops and often do multiple jobs?

The Greeks made money, didn't invest it and spent it farming out their work. We've decided which jobs we want to do, because we can afford to. A lot of parents have sold land and property to give their children a generous allowance equal to a gross salary of about 650 euros [a month] because they thought - wrongly - that their children shouldn't work. I think that statistically the children of educated, white-collar parents more often go out and work, while blue-collar children go to the cafe. Their parents have a lot of stress and work for their kids and sell off their property in the countryside. But this is coming to an end.

Why are Greek salaries so low compared to the rest of Europe?

I don't know why wage deals are kept so low. Greeks get by with two jobs and a measure of tax evasion (do all private tutors declare their income?). They have a dad bringing olive oil from the village and a mum looking after the kids.

What would you list as competitive advantages in the Greek career labour market?

First, if you try, you will succeed. Second, don't hide behind your degree. If you are asked what your favourite course was, be prepared to say. There is a lack of qualitative staff in the market, who can listen, learn and make a difference. Be yourself, but be flexible. Be confident in who you are but not arrogant, which means know what you cannot change about yourself and improve the things you can. Look to work at companies that share your culture and values. These are things you cannot adapt to. 

In a nutshell

The 5 key ingredients for success:
1. If you try, you will succeed.
2. Don't hide behind your degree.
3. Listen, learn and make a difference.
4. Be yourself, but be flexible. Be confident in who you are but not arrogant.
5. Look to work at companies that share your culture and values.

The Pursuit of Excellence, and Doing As You're Told

Through an accident of domestic and European politics, some of the most promising private universities on Greek soil could be the ultimate losers of the liberalisation they have long sought. 

The domestic politics centre on George Papandreou. Under his leadership, the socialists have departed not once but twice from the reform process. Last year they walked out of crosspartisan discussions on how to reform public university law. They thus denuded the government of its only alliance in the face of unionists who swear to fight implementation tooth and nail. A few months ago Pasok ceremoniously announced its departure from constitutional reform, including amendments that would put private higher education on an equal footing with public - something Papandreou says he agrees should happen. 

The European politics are an admonition Greece has long expected. On April 19, the European Commission decided to refer Greece to the European Court for defaulting on an obligation to recognise degrees from other member states. The referral makes seven distinct charges, chief among them Greece's non-recognition of accredited European franchises, the overweening nature of boards that stand in judgement over degrees and their issuing institutions, and discrimination against European degree holders working in the public sector.

European Court decisions are notoriously slow, but the conservatives may act pre-emptively to avoid isolation in Brussels and preserve their reformist mantle from political moths at home. Were that to happen, a series of European franchises in this country would almost automatically issue publicly recognised degrees, whose holders would apply for government jobs. But that would leave American institutions beached as the only unrecognised providers of higher education.

Those include the American College of Thessaloniki and the American College of Greece. (The third member of that distinguished group, the American Farm School, now offers a Bachelor's degree from the University of Wales, and would gain from obedience to European directives.)

The American College of Thessaloniki was lured to Greece in 1923 by no less a statesman than Eleftherios Venizelos, with the words:

"We hope you will bring your good work to our country. We want American education, though I must say we cannot offer pecuniary support; we have too many requirements and too few resources in our Greek situation to do that, but we will give you any favors you want such as securing terrain, water supply, and exemption from customs duties, taxes, and the like. You had better locate in Saloniki; that's the best place for you; it's the most international."

Those words, recorded by their recipient, vice dean George White, now have no equivalent political sentiment.

The American College of Greece, also known as Deree, was founded in Athens in 1975 to service US overseas personnel. Given the anti-American political climate of the time, it is single-handedly credited with giving rise to article 16 of the constitution of that year, which determined that only public entities shall offer degrees recognised by the state. If America was going to support dictators and incursions onto Greek soil, at least the civil apparatus was going to be immune from them. Times change, however. Henry Kissinger is no longer running US foreign and security policy and Greece is back in Nato's military arm.

Undoubtedly, other US institutions would suffer discrimination too. Franchises and subsidiaries of institutions on American soil contribute to our underdeveloped higher education sector. They, too, allow thousands of Greek students the critical thinking and uninhibited bibliography their public university peers are denied.

But no franchise or fully-owned subsidiary can claim to have invested as heavily in education, and over as long a period, as the three American campus institutions. They have built libraries, student unions and sports facilities, becoming what would pass for fine liberal arts colleges in the US. In an environment of legal equality with Greek public universities, they would be in a position to expand enrolments and infrastructure.

As stand-alone colleges, Anatolia and Deree are independently accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, one of the most stringent US accreditation bodies, and not by extension, through association with a US campus.

Finally there is the spectre of mismanagement. The University of La Verne in Athens collapsed in 2004 through economic mismanagement and a heavy-handed response from its US sponsor, now the subject of a lawsuit. Another, the University of Indianapolis, skulks under a shadow of questionable enrolment practices. Campus colleges, representing investments that began in 1904, cannot afford such scandal and there are signs that they have begun to distance themselves from US franchises and subsidiaries.

Industry has long recognised the degrees of private universities here. It is only the state that holds them in abeyance; but really they are the victims of the low esteem in which Greeks hold politicians. When Greeks are polled on whether they agree with education reform in principle, a majority says yes. When polled on the merits of a particular proposal they often switch sides, either because a rabid opposition tells them to, or because they fear the motives of politicians, who must follow a venerable tradition of selling favours to individuals.

This opposition to changing article 16 has, inexplicably, infected George Papandreou, an Amherst College graduate who knows better, but suffers from a dizzying lack of resolve when dealing with the populists in his party. Pulling down the shutters on revision of article 16, Papandreou unconvincingly said it was not the principle of liberalisation he disagreed with but the wording of it. He promised to enact his own revision when he comes to power, trusting that the bipartisanship necessary to constitutional revisions will be granted him after he has begrudged it.

To be fair to Papandreou, he demonstrated bravery when he defied powerful voices in his party against revision; and New Democracy did much to bring partisanship upon itself when it inelegantly tried to manipulate a parliamentary committee into voting through a questionable amendment to article 24, which concerns the designation of forests. But Pasok is overreacting in abandoning the reform process in its entirety.

There are two ways out of the present hiatus, and only one of them is sensible; that is for New Democracy to work with Pasok behind the scenes to prepare a mutually agreed text for an amended article 16, which Papandreou could, if he is in opposition after the next election, survivably suggest to his MPs to vote in. The idea of compromise is perfectly reasonable because impasse ultimately makes both parties look bad, and the political process has already discredited itself too much in the sphere of education.

The not-so-sensible way out is for reputable American institutions to be baptised European. That legal sleight of hand would not only trample on an honourable transatlantic tradition that Europe could do with more of. It would be the clearest possible message to the country with eight of the world's top ten universities that we Greeks are not interested in long-term investment in charitable higher education, but only in the franchises that survive on fees; and it would render true the rantings of the left that we have only the political will to acquiesce, however reluctantly, to Brussels dictates that enforce the open market, but not the will to put into place policies that allow the pursuit of excellence.