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MADRID (Reuters) - After more than a decade working as doctors, Spaniards Elena Casillas and Esther Perea are back in the classroom, and it's not easy. Some of their classmates need dictionaries to compose basic sentences. Others need help with word order. For everyone, the biggest challenge is pronunciation.
"When I first heard German, I thought, ‘My God, it's horrible,'" says 40-year old Casillas, one of a dozen medics recruited by a private German hospital group which is giving the pair free classes in Madrid with the promise of work at a German hospital if they come up to scratch.
Casillas' class is part of a German campaign to attract people who have skills in medicine and engineering. Germany can use up to 200,000 immigrant workers per year to maintain its economic potential, according to the Bundesbank, while Spain currently has the highest unemployment in Europe, more than 24 percent or around 5.6 million people.
Given that free movement of labour is one of the foundation stones of the European Union, you might think job-seekers from Spain would be filling Germany's gaps. A few are making the shift: in 2011, Spanish arrivals jumped 52 percent according to German data. But the overall numbers are still tiny. Between 16,000 and 21,000 came to Germany from Spain last year, compared with more than 100,000 immigrants from Poland.
"Looking at the economic situation one might have expected a bit more outflows," said Thomas Liebig, an expert in international migration at the OECD.
Europe's relative lack of labour mobility can be pinned on cultural obstacles, as well as increasingly choosy employers and stiff competition from established migrants. For Spaniards, in particular, Europe is not working, and this highlights a structural trend just at the time the region needs to make the most of its single market for workers.
"Where governments are able to manage the inflow they are becoming more selective," says John Salt, a professor at University College London who specialises in international European migration. "What they want are workers with high-level skills who can initiate new ideas or developments, or fill certain skill gaps."
Europeans have long tended to be less mobile than their American colleagues. A typical European worker is about half as likely as their U.S. counterpart to move between regions or country: 18 percent against 32 percent, according to 2005 European data. Only 4 percent of EU workers moved to another EU country.
The gap may be shrinking. In the United States, migration levels have fallen in this downturn. The Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, says U.S. labour mobility is at its lowest rate since 1948. Besides a simple lack of jobs, people have tended to stay where they are because it's become harder to get a new home loan, says William Frey, a senior fellow at the institution.
In Europe, there has been an uptick in workers shifting around, including from Greece to Germany.
But surveys suggest the Spanish are generally more reluctant than other nationalities to quit their home country: just 11 percent of Spanish adults told Gallup pollsters between 2009 and 2011 they wanted to move abroad, below the poll's global average of 14 percent.
Casillas is married to a German, but says many of her colleagues would rather make a move to France or the UK because of the language. Casillas' and Perea's generation focused on English and French at school, and more than twice as many Spaniards live in France than in Germany.
A European Union survey in 2005 found the majority of Spaniards had not learned a second language: even those who wanted to improve their language skills did not make German their top choice, but preferred English and French. After France and the United Kingdom, Germany was the third most popular destination in Europe for Spanish migrants in 2011.
"The reality is that we Spanish are not like the Germans or Norwegians who speak perfect English. We've never put much emphasis on languages and all of them scare us," said Casillas. "Our impression of Germany is serious people, who are very cold."
"And there's little sun there!" her friend added.
In an effort to woo the Spanish, German recruiters are heading to job markets to sign up candidates. German job centres have also focused attention on regions such as Portugal, Italy and Greece. An innovative mayor in Schwaebisch Hall, a small town in south-west Germany, even managed to generate 10,000 applications from Portuguese job-seekers through a media offensive.
Employers who can persuade Spanish workers to make the move report mixed results. Ruecker, a Wiesbaden-based company that provides electrical hardware and software for cars and planes, advertised for 500 engineers from southern European countries in April. It offered a free two-month language course, with 1,000 euros ($1,240) towards costs, followed by a 3,000-euro-a-month salary for a trial period and an increase to 3,500-euro once a permanent contract is signed.
The terms are attractive - probably about 30 percent more than in Spain, according to one Spanish engineer. Thomas Aukamm, Ruecker's managing director for sales, marketing and recruiting, said the firm received 3,500 applications, mainly from Spain, after advertising there as well as in Italy and Greece.
However, Spain's now-bust real estate boom has equipped its engineers with skills that Germany can't easily use. Aukamm said only 500 of the applicants had experience in mechanical or aeronautical trades - many Spanish engineers worked in construction. A lack of languages could rule out others: "That is still something that can limit the recruitment of people from Spain."
In a world where there are too many workers, countries and employers can pick and choose. Germany, a mature economy with advanced technological needs, is highly selective about the workers it can use: it isn't some newly industrialising upstart that could accommodate any number of energetic entrepreneurs.
And Spanish workers thinking of moving north face competition, particularly from well-educated eastern Europeans, University College London's Salt says. A change in German immigration rules in 2011 brought a 27 percent jump in the number of working Poles there to nearly 130,000, according to the German office for foreign employees. For every Spaniard who arrived to seek work, more than five Poles found a job.
The crisis has come just as the Spanish were getting used to prosperity at home. Up until the 1970s, the four-decade dictatorship of General Francisco Franco encouraged many to seek better lives in European countries like Germany, Switzerland and France, and as far afield as Venezuela and Argentina.
Democratic Spain joined the European Economic Community in 1986, and with a construction boom in the 1990s the country became a magnet to immigrants from Latin America and Africa. The slowdown has just seen the country become a net exporter of labour again, which means many Spanish have lost the habit of moving to seek work.
One reason more Poles and Romanians move to Germany than Spaniards is because their social groups have been recently established, the OECD's Liebig says. The first wave of eastern Europeans moved west just five years ago; Spanish, Greek and Portuguese migrants abroad are from earlier generations.
Leaving isn't easy. Southern Europeans tend to have stronger social networks at home, with grandparents often caring for children. "You know it would be a leap into the unknown," said Antonio, a Spanish engineer who is learning German just in case he needs to seek work.
One truck driver who ventured north from near the Spanish border found himself stuck in a small room in a charity hostel. Miguel Goncalves, 34, tried his fortunes in Norway, one of hundreds of southern Europeans attracted to the rich oil-producing state after a Spanish TV documentary said Spaniards could earn 4,000 euros a month and enjoy free child care and health services there.
In the depths of winter, the Portuguese driver landed a job interview with a lorry firm. "'How are you with snow and ice?' they asked," Goncalves said. "I replied 'more or less,' and that was that. It was then I knew I wouldn't be getting a job." Spaniards who failed to find work have been sent back.
Others have encountered different obstacles: Spanish construction workers are used to working in cement, not wood as in Norway; and construction is in any case already dominated by Polish immigrants with old ties so informal networks are no help.
The process of deciding if and when to move country is sometimes described by migration experts as the "salami system", says Salt. Things get bad in small slices, but you don't know which one will make you say ‘that's it!'
"People don't move unless they really have to and even then they need the resources to move," he says. The costs of moving possessions and paying deposits in countries that have totally different rental and legal systems can often seem more daunting than tangible benefits, like family homes and welfare systems.
"I've worked for 12 years and know that if I lose my job I'm entitled to unemployment benefit for two years," said Antonio, the Spanish engineer. "If I work abroad and lose my job after six months, do I have any right to anything and which state system do I turn to?"
Advice on these questions is available from a European Commission-run website called EURES, which advertises jobs and can put people in touch with advisers. But few Europeans know the organisation.
Carlos Carreira, a 46-year-old Spanish-born industrial engineer who was made redundant in Lisbon, believes the risk in Germany is worth taking.
"Getting a job here will take time, but I will wait. It will be three or four months," he said. "I am used to moving and I speak several languages. The most important thing is just to work. Even if it is not at the same level as before."
Doctors Casillas and Perea are in a more privileged position, with work already on offer. "I'm seeing going to Germany as an adventure," said Perea. "If it doesn't work out, I'll just come back."
Sarah Morris reported from Madrid, Madeline Chambers from Berlin; with additional reporting by Alan Wheatley, Sara Ledwith and Naomi O'Leary in London and Alistair Scrutton in Bergen; Editing by Sara Ledwith and Simon Robinson