SANTIAGO - We know the 20th century storyline well: European migrants crammed into ships headed for South America’s principal cities, eager to leave the impoverished, war-stricken continent behind. On a different scale, and in a very different way, history is repeating itself as business executives from Europe are increasingly choosing to test their luck in Latin America and, in doing so, put some distance between themselves and the current economic crisis complicating matters back in the “Old World.”

Clearly, this 21st century migration is of a very different nature. Unlike the “huddling masses” of yesteryear, today’s European migrants are shirt-and-tie-wearing executives who come equipped with postgraduate degrees and speak two or three languages. And yet in one basic regard, people like André Da Costa Bernal - a Portuguese ex-pat who works for a consulting firm called Vivo - are seeking the same thing the last wave of European migrants did: better job prospects. “The big difference now is that I earn much more than I did in Lisbon,” he says.

Others see a stint in Latin America as a curriculum booster that will hopefully serve them later, when - and if - they return to their countries of origin. “If I went back to Spain I’d probably end up working in a department where I’d be in charge of dealings with Latin America,” says Pablo Fernández de Castro, director of the consulting firm Development Systems in Brazil. “Once you leave your country, it’s difficult to separate yourself from the international experience you’ve had.”

In Fernández de Castro’s case, the international experience he’s gained on this side of the ocean has already helped him advance. The Spaniard originally found work in Chile. From there he moved to São Paulo, where with his current job he has 15 people working under him.

Right now the European market is saturated with professionals. There are few available posts and competition is fierce. “In Latin America it’s the opposite situation,” says Roberto Machado, a regional manager with Michael Page, a recruitment firm. “Here there are plenty of jobs and not enough qualified executives to fill them.”

Statistics compiled by Michael Page suggest that the top Latin American destinations for European professionals are Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Chile and Argentina.

Barriers to entry

According to Machado, a Brazilian, approximately 95% of the multinational companies Michael Page is in contact with are expanding into Latin America and Asia. Emerging countries like Brazil, in other words, are now an investment priority for these companies. That, in turn, impacts labor demand, lowering unemployment and pushing up salaries. “Companies are in urgent need of people with the right training and education,” he says.

Like the previous century’s European immigrants, this new wave faces certain cultural hurdles that come with adjusting to life across the ocean. Even people who speak the language – as is the case for Portuguese in Brazil and Spaniards in most of the other Latin America countries – can find the experience challenging. Upon arriving in Brazil, André Da Costa Bernal was struck by how “superficial” people there are. “It’s difficult to keep up a conversation about anything other than dieting or going to the gym,” he says. “It’s the same whether you’re talking to men or women.”

Although they try to integrate, executives from Europe often end up forming groups of friends with other foreigners. Europeans say they are initially received with a warm welcome, but that relationships with locals tend to cool off quickly and can in fact be stressful.

Moving abroad can also include a fair share of logistical problems. In most Latin American countries, tourist visas last just three months, meaning immigrants must act quickly to acquire working and residence papers. That usually requires the sponsorship of a particular employer, meaning the immigrant ends up relying on that company in order to remain legal in the country.

But even with all the hassle and cultural barriers, Fernández de Castro of Spain isn’t considering going home, at least not yet. “My experience tells me that those who go back tend to end up worse off,” he says.

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Photo - jorpcolombia2007