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Working, surviving and prospering in Spain

Some thoughts, opinions, facts and background for anybody who is interested in working, surviving and prospering in Spain.

Surviving in Spain
12 June 2008

I probably get more enquiries about working in Spain than any other subject and the honest truth is it is NOT easy to get work in Spain. It is even more difficult to get well-paid work unless you speak FLUENT Spanish and have an excellent group of local contacts. I am constantly amazed at the number of people who expect to breeze into a well-paid job with a package similar to those offered in the UK or Northern Europe. It just does NOT happen. Firstly, Spanish salaries are lower than almost anywhere in Northern or Western Europe and most job offers are now on a fixed-term contract basis. Indeed in the Valencian Community in 2004 less than 10% of all contracts offered were of an indefinite basis. However, the biggest challenge is the language issue. Spanish companies will rarely employ foreign nationals unless you have key skills AND fluent Spanish. Unemployment is amongst the highest in the EU and with a highly educated labour force especially among the younger generation, you must offer a potential employer something very special to be considered ahead of a local candidate. Even lowly-paid cleaning and care work is usually offered to the thousands of South Americans, North Africans and Eastern Europeans who are happy to work for wages that many Europeans would turn up their noses at. Yes, working in Spain needs FLEXIBILITY and ADAPTABILITY.

So, for most people the options are very limited. There is casual and badly paid bar work and many expats work at some stage with/for estate agents selling houses to the next wave of would-be expats. Even that is usually self-employed with often no financial or other guarantees and sometimes you would even have to supply your own car. To find work you must forget most of the norms from your home country. Here most work is found word of mouth. If you are looking for work, introduce yourself to anybody and everybody. Tell them that you are a time-served builder with 25 years' experience and you should soon see work coming in. What is less in demand is office clerks or dental receptionists. For that type of work you WILL need fluent Spanish. Nothing less will do. Imagine it the other way round. Would a dentist in Derby ever employe a Spaniard who, however good she was, could not speak English? I think not and the same is true here.

So with these few exceptions, the vast majority of expats who do work over here are self-employed. They either work as an agent for an established company or set up their own small or not so small business. Many people who had previously always "clocked on" now discover the highs and lows of self-employment. I declare my preference here and state that in all my working life I have only ever been employed for a few months. In my worst nightmares, I could think of nothing more depressing than being forced to work FOR somebody. Yet, for many the thought of being self-employed is equally terrifying. So, for some who do decide to take the self-employment route it is a last resort but for others it is the fulfillment of a life's dream. What is evident is that for most people it can be the ONLY option.

Many people have dreamt of owning a bar looking out over the Med. Having done that I can assure you that unless you are prepared to commit yourself to a 24 hour per day/ 7 day per week schedule, forget it. I have seen more people lose more money running bars than anybody would believe. In almost all expat areas there are far too many bars and far too few customers. Sure, a few people do "make it" and to those I take my hat off. Sadly, the overwhelming majority of bars change hands with tedious regularity and many thousands of people have their dreams and bank balances destroyed. Running a bar in Spain is HARD WORK with LONG HOURS and small margins. I wish you well but knowing what I have learnt over many years I can only suggest that you save your money and sanity and consider other alternatives.

So, what else can you do? The simple answer is – anything. Look around you and consider what services are missing. The newer the expat area, the less developed the infrastructure is and the more likely it is that you can make your mark but even in more mature areas there is still great demand for honest, reliable electricians, plumbers, builders, joiners, tillers, plasterers etc. Equally, if you have experience in installing satellite TV, alarms or grilles you can carve out a niche. But there are a million and one opportunities for those who think outside the circle – teachers could give extra English lessons to expat children, you could give swimming lessons or teach a hobby (yoga to computers, sewing to chess). You might NOT be well paid by the hour BUT you will have had no capital investment, it is easy to stop if it does not work out and you will be doing something you love – you cannot put a price on that! Perhaps you have the money to set up a shop, English (etc) supermarket, computer shop or even your own estate agency. More ambitious people and those with specialist knowledge could set up a local newspaper or magazine. Others I know have set up car/bike hire companies and a few very bold people have set up kindergartens and even schools. Obviously the last few require more money but all are, in my humble opinion, safer options than running a bar. My suggestion is always that you aim at the expat market. Unless you speak fluent Spanish trying to market specialist equipment to the Spanish is fraught with difficulties.

Yes, there is work in Spain.....IF you have a flexible approach and do not think that the world owes you a living! Sorry to be blunt but that's the way it is here. One friend and respected businessperson has a solution for those who are prepared to work hard for themselves. In its simplest form it involves working from home building a business practically anywhere in the world.

Finally, there are any number of options to work as agents for Spanish or international companies marketing any number of products. Thousands of people every year arm themselves with a filofax and a mobile phone and call themselves estate agents. Some even go one stage further and take an office or launch a web site. Some will get a lucky break and sell a few properties whilst others will find the whole experience of fighting against professional companies for the potential buyers a very distressing experience. Nevertheless it is a viable option with low start-up costs. Equally many grille, TV and air-conditioning suppliers will happily pay a commission for all referrals

Many ex-pats are involved in some type of franchising or Network Marketing business. This can work very well indeed. Generally there is a proven business model, often there is a minimal or zero start up cost and always there is the plus that most people who you would approach have far more time to meet with you and your business (large or small) can be run in a very sociable environment. Some of the types of businesses that are always looking for agents, reps etc are telephone, alarm and health product companies. I am myself involved with an online company and am always looking for new partners anywhere in the world. For example with my company the total investment is only about 200 euros and for that you get your own web site and the opportunity to market the services of a world leader. There are no guarantees of success as in anything of a self-employed nature BUT the investment is massively smaller than owning a bar and you can work from home just the hours you choose. For many years I have also owned an online company and again I would welcome partners anywhere in the world. What is interesting for many is that they can even start their business in their home country whilst they are still planning their new life in Spain. They simply transfer their activities to Spain when they do eventually move. Others have moved here with the full intention of developing their Herbalife, Amway or similar business and all seem to be happy with their decision.

Here are some more random thoughts:

This is a reply I gave to “Ronny” many years ago on an expats forum. The years ago on but my thoughts remain the same.

“Hi everybody. Every week on the various forums relating to Spain there is a question from hopeful couples in their thirties, often with a child or two asking about jobs and schools in Spain. Do any of these families make a proper go of it or do they just end up hand-to-mouth.

I ask because the more I see of Spain the more I thank my fate is in the UK. I have a UK income. Ronny”

Now, that's what I call an interesting question. I get perhaps 15/20 people every month asking me questions like:

1) Will I get a job as a bowling alley technician? 2) Would you tell me everything you know about Spain? 3) Will I like Spain?
4) What's the best part of Spain to live in?
5) How little Spanish can I get by on? Is English enough?

Many of them start with "Hi, my name's X and I'm thinking perhaps, maybe, possibly, at some time in the future of moving to Spain or maybe Malta, Florida, Greece or ....if.......... I send them a list of URLs, advise them to join expat forums and do some SERIOUS preparation. A lot of them have children and many have absolutely no idea whatsoever re education, Spanish, Spain itself, job opportunities etc etc. I usually also tell them the FACTS. There are very few employed (as opposed to self-employed) opportunities. If you do not speak Spanish the opportunities at getting much above the minimum wage are extremely limited. You only need to see the tiny vacancies section in the English language papers to recognise that. Nevertheless thousands come every year looking for a land of milk and honey. Whilst the grass maybe greener here in Spain (figuratively at least!) it most definitely needs cutting.

I have now had some 700 people who work with me / for me so I meet up with a lot of these types of people. Ronny, you are 100% correct in your underlying assumption that many do not make a fist of it. I can give many reasons.

1) Firstly and most importantly they have not done enough, if any, homework. They have absolutely no comprehension that for example someone who was, say, a dental receptionist in the UK is going to find it almost impossible to get the same job over here.

2) They have absolutely no comprehension of how expensive Spain is. I am sure I speak for many when I say that I find Spain is now only marginally less expensive than the UK for many things.

3) They make very little effort to learn any Spanish. A hobby-horse of mine so I won't continue. NOWHERE in Spain is English universally spoken. Even in Benidorm, Torremolinos, Marbella or Torrevieja, Spanish is still the official language. NOT speaking Spanish will massively harm your chances of getting work. FACT.

4) They quite bluntly do not have a work appetite. Somehow they expect to work fewer hours for more money than they did in the UK.

5) Many were losers in the UK. Somehow they think if they come to Spain and do all the things they did wrong in the UK they will succeed. It's pure folly to think if you do the same things you failed with before that you will get a different result if you continue to do them wrongly over here.

6) On the same track many are quitters. (Winners never quit and quitters never win.)

7) As they have done so little preparation re 1, 2 and 3 that when a problem happens they are not ready for it and struggle to overcome whatever the problem is.

Can people make a go of it? Yes, absolutely many of my guys have a lifestyle they could never have dreamt of in the UK. Some earn serious money - very serious money in some cases. Many others give up and either flee back to the UK or mess around with airport runs, villa cleaning etc etc trying to eke out a living until they win the lottery (Spanish or otherwise!). I'll give anybody a chance - that's my style BUT at the first meeting I know pretty well who's a talker and who's a walker. I know most times who will succeed, who will survive and who will fail. Equally, many have absolutely no direction whatsoever. I am fortunate that I am not down to my last five bob. I'm not into flash cars or a fancy lifestyle. So, I often say to the people who don't seem cut out for what I have to offer, "Is there anything that you would like to do, if I were to fund a new project with you?" Unbelievably, most have absolutely no idea. So if I help them set it up, get the papers in order and even fund it they wouldn't know what they wanted!!! ¡No digo nada! On the other hand, I mentioned it to a couple the other day and the lady immediately came up with what I believe was a very credible business proposition for here in Spain. (Watch this space!!)

Sorry if the answer is a bit long winded but it is one of those "meaning of life questions" where the answer is more likely to be observations and opinions rather than "the police station is at Calle Mayor 36 and the telephone number is 9........

Kind regards Steve”

Here is another and earlier reply to a similar question:

Message: I agree with Bob 100%. I have more than 400 people who work with me over here on various projects and I am constantly in need of quality people. By the same token I am constantly amazed at people's job expectations - would you be happy if you rang, say, your dentist in Derby and found that the receptionist spoke only Spanish? So why should a dental receptionist expect to find work in a Spanish dental surgery? "Oh, well I could learn." ¡No digo nada!

FACTS there are almost NO permanent employee positions with contracts UNLESS you speak Spanish FLUENTLY. Usually, even then FLUENCY in another language French, Norwegian or German is also required. That is why you see so many Belgian and Dutch people working for estate agents etc. From birth they have been comfortable in 3 or 4 languages.

FACTS - my two secretaries are German and Dutch. One speaks Dutch, German, English and Spanish and the other speaks German, Spanish, French and English.

When I last interviewed for a secretary I got over 70 applications. Over 30 were from English speakers BUT only 3 had the MINIMUM number of languages clearly stated in the advert - three. My short list was a Finn, two Dutch girls, a Belgian guy (who spoke SIX languages fluently) and a Norwegian. These people were applying for a position with a contract, 30 days’ paid holiday etc. Everything that so many people crave for.

Incidentally in the Valencian Community only 10% of all new positions advertised last year were with permanent contracts and that is the Spanish and not the ex-pat market place. Do not also forget that Spain has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe and that a lot of the best jobs in Spain are "word of mouth."

That's not to say that there is NO work. There is - this is Klondike at the moment BUT you dig your own gold. 90%+ of all the ex-pats over here are self-employed. There is as much work as you want in the building trade and in sales. I am frequently frustrated that I cannot start more projects. Why? The lack of quality staff. Corporation bus drivers with 20 years experience are NOT in demand over here BUT if the same man can sell or use his hands then he has a chance.

As an aside, two weeks ago I placed an advert which was written in Spanish (only- no translation) on an expats forum. It offers a guaranteed work contract, a realistic salary and everything else that goes with a Spanish permanent contract. To date, it has been viewed 437 times. I have had one person who wanted to know why it was written in Spanish and one person who failed to turn up for an interview twice! I know I would have had more applicants if I had written in English or Swedish BUT absolute fluency in spoken and written Spanish is a pre-requisite so it saved me all the “I get by” dreamers

Whatever route you choose I wish you every success. It is never easy to start a new business in a new country, especially if you are not bi-lingual, but the rewards both in terms of lifestyle and independence can be exceptionally rewarding. Please feel free to email with any comments or enquiries.

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