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WORKING IN SPAIN

‘Homologación’: How Spain is ruining the careers of thousands of qualified foreigners 

Thousands of doctors, engineers and other highly skilled foreigners are being prevented from working in their fields as they wait for years for their non-EU qualifications to be recognised by Spain’s convoluted bureaucratic system, a nightmare labelled as protectionism and “Kafkaesque”. 

'Homologación': How Spain is ruining the careers of thousands of qualified foreigners 
There are reportedly more than 30,000 professionals who are waiting for years for their qualifications to be recognised by Spain before they are able to work in their fields. (Photo by JOSE LUIS ROCA / AFP)

Doctors, veterinarians, pharmacists, nurses, physiotherapists, optometrists, dentists, occupational therapists, psychologists, speech therapists, architects, engineers, lawyers, and more.

Tens of thousands of foreigners in Spain with qualifications from non-EU countries are having their careers put on hold and their lives kept in limbo as Spain’s public administrations take two, three or four years (sometimes even longer) for their regulated qualifications to be processed.

Regulated professions are those that require Spanish authorities to validate non-EU qualifications through the process of homologación before jobseekers can legally work in their fields. 

These professionals usually go from offering an invaluable and expert service in their home countries to doing jobs below their pay grade and skillset in Spain, from waiting tables to delivering food.

They can’t continue their higher education in Spain either as they’d also have to wait for years to be approved for this, and by the time they’ve realised how long it will be before they can work in their professional fields in Spain, in many cases too much time has gone by for them to be hired in another country.

They’re trapped, it’s catch-22 for them, or as they say in Spanish el pez que se muerde la cola (the fish that bites its own tail).

Why does it take years for foreign qualifications to be recognised in Spain?

This is the crux of the matter, and one that’s difficult to get to the bottom of, given the opaque nature of Spain’s bureaucratic labyrinth. 

It can best be summarised as a combination of a huge lack of resources and personnel, little accountability from the responsible public administrations, the inexplicable willingness to overcomplicate what could otherwise be simpler official processes, and the fact that these migrants in Spain are largely voiceless.

After all, these pervasive problems affect Spaniards on a day-to-day basis, so foreigners have an even smaller chance of being heard.

Some even suggest protectionism from collegiate associations who don’t want foreigners to take work away from them as another reason (more on this further down).

And of course, as with so many other delays with official matters in Spain, the pandemic has been blamed for the longer waiting times, when in fact the protracted processing system existed long before Covid-19 hit. It’s just even worse now.

“Our lives are on pause because of your inefficiency”, reads a sign at a protest by foreigners outside Spain’s Ministry of Universities. Photo: Frente Interprofesional Migrante

A made-in-Spain bureaucratic nightmare

When a person with foreign qualifications begins the homologación process in Spain (including Spaniards that studied outside of the EU), they must first prepare a wide array of documents that are accredited in the specific way that Spain’s government requires.

This is one of the first stumbling blocks for many applicants. 

For example, the Ministry of Universities requires that original documents should have the Hague Apostille on them, something that most countries don’t do (usually a copy of the original is apostilled). 

“There are incoherent rules that are different to what’s required elsewhere in the EU,” Senator Adelina Escandell, one of the only politicians to stand up for these ill-treated foreign professionals, told the Catalan Senate in late June.

If the documentation isn’t in Spanish, everything has to be translated by a registered sworn translator. If for example, an academic transcript of thirty pages has to be translated, this could easily cost over €1,000 which the applicant has to pay for. 

Applicants who don’t have Spanish as their first language also have to pass a B2 level Spanish exam, higher than that required to obtain Spanish nationality, for which they’ll have to pay an extra €202, plus the cost of Spanish classes and other learning materials.

When all the necessary paperwork is gathered together, the applicant sends it to the General Directorate of Degrees, part of the Ministry of Universities. This short-staffed department used to form part of Spain’s Ministry of Education, then it joined the Ministry of Science and Innovation, but with every change of government in Spain it seems to end up forming part of another ministry, adding to the confusion.

There is no helpline where applicants can enquire about any doubts they may have and anybody attempting to speak to a civil servant at the Education or Universities ministerial headquarters in Madrid’s Paseo de la Castellana will be turned away by security guards.

“The files sent in by applicants just sit there for over a year without anyone even touching them,” HT Abogados, a law firm specialising in the homologación process, told The Local Spain.

One disgruntled applicant who wished to remain anonymous confirmed to The Local that the Ministry of Universities took a year and two months just to let him know that his file had been opened and for a reference number to be given to him. 

If there’s a document missing, the file is put aside and several more months are added to the wait.

Once the Directorate of Degrees gets round to checking that all the documents have been correctly legalised, translated and included in the file, the application is sent to ANECA.

homologacion spain

“The ‘homologación’ isn’t a process, it’s torture” reads a sign at one of the protests held by qualified foreigners kept waiting for years to be allowed to work in Spain. Photo: Frente Interprofesional Migrante

This is an external body which was contracted to determine equivalency of foreign degrees with Spanish ones, essentially taking on the burden of deciding which degrees make the bar and which ones don’t.

In 2020, ANECA reported having only a total of 82 workers, meaning that the number of employees tasked with processing tens of thousands of homologaciones is considerably lower than that, as they do have plenty of other responsibilities. 

Here is where the wait lingers for years, with no guarantee that there will be a positive result in the end. In fact, many applicants are told that after all the time they’ve wasted, they have to complete more modules for them to be granted the homologación, which means paying to go back to university, or simply that their application has been rejected. 

In the same way as the gestor figure (a type of jack-of-all-trades agent that helps people solve complex official matters) is unique to Spain, several law firms specialising in homologación have been created to help these desperate foreigners. 

They take power of attorney to present the applications on behalf of the foreigners, file official complaints, and essentially give them a voice, at a cost of course.

“If the Ministry correctly informed applicants, had a proper website, met their deadlines, replied to emails and phone calls and dealt with people face to face, we wouldn’t need to exist and would focus our legal services elsewhere,” HT Abogados told The Local Spain. 

“The new Royal Decree marks a nine-month deadline for homologaciones to be resolved (previously it was six), six months for the processing time and three for the ANECA report, but these longer deadlines have never been met.

“The minimum waiting time, which is for equivalencias and doctors, is two years. Anything other than that and expect a minimum of three years. It’s terrible!

“The other day we called a doctor who’d been waiting for more than two years for his homologación to inform him it had been approved and he said ‘great, I can finally stop riding around, delivering food on my bike for Glovo’”.

To be clear, the homologación process isn’t necessarily sped up with the help of a lawyer, but it may well be worth hiring one, as even the required documents listed by Spain’s Education Ministry are nowhere near what is truly required for the homologación to be successful.

Other people with non-EU Masters or Phds who want to work or continue studying in Spain may also have to get their non-EU qualifications validated through the process of equivalencia or convalidación, even if they don’t work in regulated professions. 

It’s also a painstaking process which can prevent scientists, academics and others from working in Spain for several years.

Thousands of foreign professionals are forced to do jobs below their pay grade and skillset in Spain whilst they wait for their homologación, from waiting tables to delivering food. (Photo by PAU BARRENA / AFP)
 

How long does the recognition of qualifications take in other EU countries?

The following breakdown of how long it takes for official bodies to recognise foreign qualifications in other Western European countries illustrates just how inexplicable Spain’s dragged-out process is. 

In France it takes three months for people in regulated professions to have their foreign degrees approved or for applicants to be informed of what’s missing from their documents, in Denmark one to two months, in Germany no longer than three to four months, in the Netherlands a maximum of 12 weeks, in Ireland it’s four months, in Austria it’s also four months, the wait in Belgium is three to four months, in Sweden a maximum of five months. And how about in Spain’s bureaucracy-loving Mediterranean cousin Italy? Three months. And Portugal? Also three months.

There are two extra points we can add. Firstly, the official information on foreign degree recognition and maximum waiting times is available in English on all the government websites linked to above, a logical approach given that many of those searching for such information will be foreigners. In the case of the Spanish Education Ministry’s website, only the top headline is in English whilst the rest of the key information is in Spanish and there is no mention of how long the homologación process takes. 

Secondly, we have researched on Twitter and Google if there is any mention of other European countries not respecting the maximum period for degree recognition to be carried out, and there is no evidence of this. 

This is truly a Spain-specific problem.

How many people are affected by Spain’s homologación fiasco?

Anyone in Spain with a qualification that’s regulated or who needs it to be officially recognised to work in their field (people who don’t enjoy the benefits of the European Bologna Plan qualification recognition scheme) could be affected. Again, there is a difference between equivalencia, convalidación and homologación, with the latter being the most drawn-out as it’s for regulated professions.

In 2021, there were reportedly 15,000 people waiting for their homologación in Spain, according to the former Minister of Universities Manuel Castells. 

However, according to the Spanish ombudsman, the real figure was more than 30,000 in May 2022. 

“No to the discrimination of foreign qualifications” reads a sign held by protesters at one of several demonstrations outside Spain’s Universities and Education ministries. Photo: Frente Interprofesional Migrante

Who are the homologantes, how does it affect them and how are they fighting?

Seeing as the bulk of Spain’s non-EU migrant population is from Latin America, most of the people affected are originally from this continent.

There are so many people waiting for their homologación that they’ve been able to form specific groups for each profession, sometimes according to country. 

How have they felt after being prevented from working in their fields for years? Perhaps the words of Catalan senator Adelina Escandell following a robotic one-hour speech by ANECA representative Mercedes Siles (read entirely from her laptop) illustrates their living nightmare.

“Whilst I was listening to all this rigorous talk of laws, credits, bars and what else, another thing came to mind – the people,” she said of how the bureaucrats shield themselves behind overly complicated legal jargon.

“These people have felt mistreated on an institutional level, they’re going through Kafkaesque situations”.

Even former Universities Minister Manuel Castells, who was an academic for 30 years at California’s Berkeley University, admitted during his tenure that “the wait is a human tragedy that becomes unbearable. Many of the best professionals leave and opt for countries that are more welcoming in the bureaucratic sense, even though they opted for Spain first”. Not that Castells did much to help them.

But the thousands of affected homologantes are not giving up. 

Protests are staged regularly outside the Ministry of Universities with megaphones, chanting and banners reading “Degree recognition isn’t a process, it’s torture” and “Who is supervising ANECA’s discrimination?”.

Articles denouncing the “institutional racism” of the Spanish government have been written and the community of affected foreigners has popularised the hashtag #HomologaciónJustaYa (FairHomologaciónNow) on Twitter.

An article titled “Migrating to Neverland” which includes an illustration of a civil servants saying “your degree isn’t valid here. Girls like you clean houses”. 

Is anything being done to try to resolve Spain’s homologación fiasco?

Google “homologación de títulos en España” and you’ll find a wide array of news articles in the Spanish press talking about the ‘express’ processes that have been brought out in 2020, 2021 and 2022 to resolve the never-ending waits, as well as ministerial promises that they will reduce the wait to six months, as they were legally obliged to do already, even though now the maximum waiting time is set at nine months.

This was also done in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, when the lack of personnel was putting huge stress on the health system, making those in charge of degree recognition blush (one would hope) as migrant professionals exclaimed “let us help!”.

Unfortunately, as HT Abogados told The Local, this is just empty talk until more civil servants are actually tasked with dealing with the mountain of applications: “If they truly want the situation to change, they must allocate more budget to hire more civil servants to help with the homologación process.

“There are still not enough resources and workers to deal with this problem”.

There is no evidence on Twitter or elsewhere that the thousands of professionals going through this arduous wait have seen their homologación processed in under a year. A callout by the group Movimiento Psicólogos Migrantes said “lift your hand if you’ve been waiting for your homologación for more than four years”. Dozens responded, and that’s just one group. 

“The digitalisation (and other measures you mention) are good, and perhaps in future they will help, but there are huge delays now,” Adelina Escandell told ANECA representatives in the Catalan Senate.

“We get the impression that instead of trying to resolve problems when they appear, you let them build up into an immense mountain or ball that’s then impossible to resolve. And this huge ball affects people.”

“I understand that it’s a complex subject and that there’s a lack of resources, but the administrations are there to resolve problems, not to complicate them.”

“There’s a lack of information and transparency. These are real people with names and surnames who’ve been waiting for a very long time”.

Why Spain is shooting itself in the foot when it comes to homologación

For practically every regulated field which requires homologación, there is a lack of professionals in Spain. 

The Spanish health system reportedly needs 120,000 nurses as well as thousands more public sector psychologists and psychiatrists to help solve the country’s mental health crisis (there are only 11 psychiatrists per 100,000 inhabitants).

Tens of thousands of doctors are set to retire in the next decade in Spain meaning that there will be a shortfall of 9,000 médicos in the next five years, double that figure by 2035.

There’s also a deficit of public physiotherapists, and many more vets are needed, especially in rural areas.

As for public dentists, Spain would need 40,000 more of them in order to fulfil its recent target of offering free public dental care to children and other vulnerable sectors of the population.

The same goes for occupational therapists, or the engineers that Spain is so desperately trying to recruit to diversify its services-heavy economy. 

Keeping in mind the brain drain of talent the country has suffered over the past decades, as qualified young Spaniards have left the country in droves in search of better pay and career aspirations in other nations that value them more, Spain would be wise to treat the eager foreign professionals that arrive in the country far better than they currently do.

Are the homologación holdups really just due to a lack of resources?

Rather than being mainly caused by a lack of manpower, it appears that in some cases the extremely long waits are also down to a lack of willpower.

Take this extract from a talk by Antonio Montero, head of Madrid’s Professional Associations of Dentists: “We’re trying to avoid intrusion/unqualified practice. We’re fighting against the qualification recognition of foreign dentists. There are 40,000 dentists in Spain, and there are 4,000 dentists that are waiting for their degree recognition, that’s 10 percent. So we’re trying to make sure that that homologación process is done in a very, very rigorous manner and that we don’t open the door as was done during the nineties”. Even the Powerpoint presentation he had running in the background had the title “Defence of the professional interests of collegiate associates”.

The video was shared by Frente Interprofesional Migrante, one of the groups fighting for the homologación fiasco to be resolved, and in the same thread another video was shared where the current Minister of Universities Joan Subirats is seen saying that “the professional associations are those which are corporately preventing some of the homologaciones from happening, the Ministry does what it can”.

According to the law firm contacted by The Local Spain, this is happening in particular with dentists and psychologists, as general health psychologists can purportedly not have their qualifications validated, and in the case of odontologists their homologación is subject to an exam which Spanish universities don’t want to provide to avoid there being more competition.

This not only proves that collegiate associations – public/private groups that regulated professionals must sign up to to be able to work – are actually lobbying to prevent foreigners from working in Spain, but that the Spanish government is bending over and allowing them to get away with it.

Conclusion

Spain’s government appears to be washing its hands of a mounting problem and turning its back on highly skilled workers it desperately needs to resolve the huge labour shortages in healthcare and other essential industries.

In the process, it’s making Spain extremely unattractive in terms of career prospects, as other EU nations and even third countries with strict migration policies recognise the value of attracting and caring for overseas talent.

The Spanish government’s recent decision to simplify the work visa process for foreigners to do hospitality, tourism and agriculture jobs shows that they can take action quickly and effectively when needed. But why not with highly qualified foreigners?

“We’re closing the door on professionals who would bring more manpower, more knowledge, more experience, as many of these people had been working for years in their fields,” Senator Adelina Escandell concluded.

“Nobody has a problem with having to have their qualifications recognised because it’s logical, but what is happening now with their homologación process is not logical.”

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WORKING IN SPAIN

‘Spain must invest in Spaniards rather than turning to migrants’: EU work chief

The European Commission’s head for jobs and social rights has said Spain “must first find a solution for young people, women and the elderly” with regard to its labour market and “see later if they need immigrants”.

'Spain must invest in Spaniards rather than turning to migrants': EU work chief

The European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights Nicolas Schmit recently took part in a summit on job security in Bilbao, where he spoke with Spain’s Labour Minister and Second Deputy Prime Ministers Yolanda Díaz about the state of affairs for workers in the country. 

When discussing potential solutions to Spain’s high unemployment rate, Schmit explained “I would not exclude immigration, but when I analyse the data, I see youth unemployment of 30 percent, more than double the European average”.  

“The priority for Spain must be to invest in its people,” Schmit continued.

“They must first look at their labour market and find a solution for young people, women and the elderly. They will see later if they need immigrants”.

Despite high unemployment levels which currently amount to three million people, Spain has worker shortages in a wide variety of sectors. 

READ ALSO: The ‘Big Quit’ hits Spain despite high unemployment and huge job vacancies

The Spanish government recently changed its immigration laws to make it easier for employers to hire non-EU citizens for sectors with shortages, from waiters to plumbers, whereas previously recruiters were required to prove that they couldn’t find an EU candidate for the job and the skills shortage list was limited and outdated. 

READ MORE: How spain is making it easier for foreigners to work in Spain

In 2023, Spain’s Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration wants to hire 62,000 third-country workers to cover an array of construction and trades jobs, something the country’s Labour Ministry has not agreed to yet. 

READ ALSO – EXPLAINED: Spain’s plans to recruit thousands of foreigners for construction and trade jobs

The government also recently passed its new startups law to attract foreign investors, digital nomads and talent to the country.

Could Spaniards not be trained to do these jobs as Schmit alludes to? Currently, low wages and unstable working conditions are dissuading many locally trained professionals from staying.

This includes almost 20,000 doctors who have moved abroad in recent years as salaries in other European countries are significantly higher than in Spain, with a newly qualified doctor’s salary only around €1,600 gross per month.

Staff shortages in the health sector are not helped by the fact that foreigners with non-EU qualifications wait for several years for their qualifications to be recognised in Spain through an unnecessarily laborious administrative process known as homologación. This applies to a number of regulated fields, from engineering to dentistry, all of which face shortages. 

READ MORE: How Spain is ruining the careers of thousands of qualified foreigners

Spain’s Socialist-led government has partly addressed some of its labour market issues by reducing the rate of temporary contracts and increasing the minimum wage (SMI), but voices within the opposition have accused Sánchez’s administration of “dressing up” the dire reality.

When asked about the rise in minimum wage, Schmit said that he believes “it will not mean significant changes for Spain, which already has a tradition of updating the minimum wage on a regular basis… but the government must take into account factors such as the cost of living and the economic context”.

“Spain must question whether the SMI allows for a decent life or creates poor workers. Its economy cannot be supported by low wages and low productivity,” he continued.  

When asked if salaries and inflation have to go hand in hand, Schmit argued “wages must be set by collective bargaining. We are experiencing very high inflation because of the explosion in energy and food prices. If there is a large lag between wages and inflation, there will be an impact on demand and the risk of recession will increase”.

With regards to pensions, Schmit explained: “I don’t think that pensions are very high in Spain and if you leave a gap between the rise in benefits and inflation, you can create a situation of poverty among the elderly. Spain has a disadvantage in that it has one of the fastest-ageing societies… The solution is to modernise the economy to make it more productive and attract more people to the job market”.  

Despite these issues, the commissioner acknowledged that the Spanish labour market has surprised many with its resistance this year. “Employment will remain strong if there is no deep recession,” he said.  

“The national plan for access to European funds has a good combination of measures to invest in green energy, digitisation, education and public employment services… Spain experienced its economic miracle due to the real estate boom, which exploded, and now it has to transform to go in the right direction”.

According to a report carried out by human resources company Hays on work trends in Spain in 2022, 77 percent of Spaniards surveyed said they would change jobs if they could. Furthermore, 68 percent of them confessed that they are actively looking for another job and the main reason they argue is to get a better salary. 

According to Eurostat data from January 2021, 37 percent of Spain’s workforce is overqualified, 17 percent higher than the EU average.

READ ALSO: Why more people than ever in Spain are overqualified for their jobs

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