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Tue April 10, 2012
Unemployed Greeks Look To Create Their Own Jobs
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.