Greece’s deep and painful sovereign debt crisis lasted almost a decade and saw up to 500,000 Greeks leave the country in search of opportunities elsewhere as the country’s economy shrunk by a quarter and unemployment shot up to 28 percent. 26 percent of those emigrating held a degree, and 69 percent a master’s or PhD, according to a 2019 ICAP survey, making it a significant ‘brain drain’ on the Greek economy.
This drain was particularly strongly felt in healthcare and the life sciences, as Michael Himonas, general manager of innovative industry lobby group the Hellenic Association of Pharmaceutical Companies (SFEE) explains. “There are approximately 15,000 Greek doctors residing and working abroad today. A high-level key opinion leader (KOL) recently told me that 80 percent of nursing school graduates leave Greece for employment opportunities elsewhere. The fact that these nurses and doctors can quadruple the salary they would have got in Greece in a Western European company like Germany makes this a simple decision for many.”
Greece is a country with incredibly talented and driven people, who were in demand and knew they could be better compensated for their talents in other countries
Aris Mitsopoulos, RAFARM
Aris Mitsopoulos, VP of leading local manufacturer RAFARM strikes a similar note, adding that “During the crisis, RAFARM saw significant numbers of scientists leaving for career opportunities in Germany, Switzerland, and elsewhere. Greece is a country with incredibly talented and driven people, who were in demand and knew they could be better compensated for their talents in other countries.”
“In the last decade, due to the financial crisis, Greece experienced a significant leak of highly educated and highly skilled individuals,” admits Marios Themistocleous, secretary general of primary health care at the Greek Ministry of Health. “Understandably, people desire a better quality of life, better education, jobs, and healthcare. This was especially felt during and after the pandemic.”
Turning Tides: Brain Gain?
However, with the economic tides having steadied in recent years, there has been a noticeable reversing of this brain drain or what some are calling a ‘brain gain’. “The brain drain trend has shifted in the past two years,” says Mitsopoulos. “People that previously left Greece are now coming back as new career opportunities emerge. Brain gain brings knowledge, expertise, and a lot of value for the Greek society and economy.”
Government schemes offering financial incentives to educated Greeks who moved abroad during the crisis and are now willing to return home have played a role in this trend, and Themistocleous feels that greater investment in people has also been vital. “More than 15,000 professionals have been hired during the last four years in the NHS, with more than 5,000 of them in 2022,” he says. “This amounts to an increase of around seven percent of the total staff in the public sector of our healthcare system. Other improvements include a ten percent increase in the salary of doctors, for the first time in 15 years, monthly allowance at the rate of 400 euros to intensivists and anaesthetists, and 250 euros monthly allowance to emergency room doctors. To that, we have also to add the significant bonus of approximately 800 euros to the personal doctors of the public settings who have more than 1500 registered citizens in their lists and the reimbursement of self-employed personal doctors for providing free services to citizens up to 60,000 euros per year.”
Ultimately, our most effective long-term approach to stopping brain drain is to discourage citizens from leaving in the first place by giving them a reason to stay, and this means providing better jobs, more opportunities, and a higher standard of living
Marios Themistocleous, secretary general of primary health care
He concludes, “Ultimately, our most effective long-term approach to stopping brain drain is to discourage citizens from leaving in the first place by giving them a reason to stay, and this means providing better jobs, more opportunities, and a higher standard of living.”
Industry-led programs have also been significant. “We are proud that we are contributing to our national brain gain once again,” exclaims Theodore Tryfon, VP of local player ELPEN Pharmaceutical, co-CEO of ELPEN Group, and president of generic industry association the Panhellenic Union of Pharmaceutical Industry (PEF).
“As President of PEF one of our highest priorities is establishing opportunities for young scientists to find jobs in our local industry. We established PEF’s Professional Development Programme in 2022 with Greek universities on quality assurance, regulatory issues, and R&D, which is helping us develop talent for our industry. This is a cornerstone of our policy and strategy and will allow Greek pharma to retain more of its young people.”
PEF General Manager Faye Kosmopolou adds that “the new investment plans that Greek pharmaceutical companies have launched mean that our sector will be able to generate an additional 2,000 new jobs in the next five years, providing our young scientists with opportunities within Greece. I am proud that as a sector we are contributing to reversing brain drain.”
Other examples of brain gain include that of industry-leading data service provider IQVIA. “One of our biggest successes is materialising brain gain; since 2020, we have more than doubled our number of employees,” exclaims Nikos Kostaras, general manager of IQVIA Greece. “From 150 employees at the beginning of 2020, we closed 2022 with 307. IQVIA Greece has made more than 150 new hires, with a third of them being Greeks returning from abroad.”
Ongoing Challenges and Causes for Optimism
While there is plenty of positivity in terms of brain regain, data shows that there is still a long road to travel ahead. A recent Eurobank study shows that in 2021, although the economy recovered well from the recession caused by the pandemic, net migration flows remain negative. This means that more Greeks are still leaving the country every year than returning.
If a company can provide a good salary and good working conditions, people will want to return to Greece
Dimitros Demos, DEMO Pharma
On the industry side, this prevents issues in terms of fostering further growth. “One of RAFARM’s major problems remains the recruitment of talented people,” laments Mitsopoulos. “Especially on the R&D front, the Greek market lacks enough senior and experienced scientists, meaning that we also look outside of our borders to fill these roles. This situation is the same for other companies, meaning that a battle for talent is underway.” He adds, “A solution here is to work more closely with the universities and the government to implement a training plan so that students develop their skills to match career paths in the pharmaceutical industry.”
Dimitris Demos, CEO of DEMO Pharma, strikes a more bullish tone. “Many entrepreneurs in Greece are complaining that they cannot find personnel of quality and know-how due to the crisis-years brain drain and, while this is partly true, the bigger picture is more nuanced,” he states. “If a company can provide a good salary and good working conditions, people will want to return to Greece. We have a fantastic climate, with six months of summer every year, and conditions are improving, thereby attracting not only Greek returnees but also talent from around the world is possible.”