MADRID -- Maria Menendez, a 25-year-old caught in Spain's job-destroying economic crisis, would love to work in Germany as a veterinarian. Germany, facing an acute shortage of skilled workers, would love to have her.
A perfect match, it seems, but something's holding her back: She doesn't speak German.
The European Union was built on a grand vision of free labor markets in which talent could be matched with demand in a seamless and efficient manner, much in the way workers in the U.S. hop across states in search of opportunity. But today only 3 percent of working age EU citizens live in a different EU country, research shows. As young people in crisis-hit southern Europe face unemployment rates hovering at 50 percent, many find themselves caught in a language trap, unable to communicate in the powerhouse economy that needs their skills the most: Germany.
"I think going abroad is my best option," said Menendez, "but for people like me who have never studied German, it would be like starting from zero."
In northern Europe, companies are desperately seeking to plug labor gaps caused by low birthrates and the growing need for specialized skills amid still robust economies. Germany alone requires tens of thousands of engineers, IT-specialists, nurses and doctors to keep its economy thriving in the years to come.
But a recent study pinpointed language as the single biggest barrier to cross-border mobility in Europe.
"What seems to prevent further labor market integration in Europe is the fact that we speak different languages," said Nicola Fuchs-Schuendeln, a Frankfurt University economics professor who co-authored the study.
Few German employers are prepared to compromise when it comes to language skills, according to Raimund Becker, who heads the German Federal Employment Agency's division for foreign and specialist recruitment. "If you want to work as an engineer you'll need a certain specialist vocabulary," he said. "Even colloquial German isn't enough."
Earlier this year the agency announced it would invest up to (euro) 40 million ($51 million) in special programs to help jobless Europeans aged 18 and 35 learn German so they can pursue jobs or training in Germany.
The measure targets people like Menendez, who graduated from veterinary school and has two master's degrees but hasn't been able to find work in Spain.
The market for veterinarians in her home country has taken a phenomenal beating over the past four years. Veterinary clinics are cutting back severely because crisis-hit Spaniards are spending less on pets, and a recent hike in the sales tax to 21 percent is hurting these businesses even more. "They're just not hiring," Menendez said.
She would also be qualified to work as a veterinarian for an agricultural company, and she has sent about 1,000 resumes to all corners of Spain over the last year. But only two companies called her back for a preliminary interview. Neither called to invite her for a formal one.
Menendez said she found plenty of jobs online in Germany, where EU rules mean her Spanish qualification would be accepted. But the ads are either in German or, if in English, say that candidates must have good German.
Like most Spaniards, she studied English at school and is now focusing on improving her English. Often touted as the continent's `lingua franca,' English is widely used in multinational companies but rarely in the public sector or the small-to-medium sized enterprises that employ the bulk of the European labor force. Meanwhile, London isn't the magnet for young English-speaking Europeans that it used to be. Migrants who flocked there a decade ago are now returning home or looking elsewhere for work as Britain, too, struggles with a rising jobless rate.
Ricardo de Campano learned the hard way how critical it is to have a wide set of language skills when he left London for Berlin two years ago. The 34-year-old said he quickly found work as a special needs teacher in London with the English he'd learned at school, but the same wasn't true when he came to Germany.
"If you want to have a decent job and be part of the system, pay your taxes and have your health insurance, you need to have German," said De Campano, who is now studying the language of Goethe at an adult education college where Spaniards have come to make up the biggest single group of students in recent years.
But despite the boom in German language teaching seen also in Spain itself, the number of Spaniards coming to Germany remains modest. According to figures provided by the Federal Employment Agency, less than 5,000 Spaniards have taken up jobs in Germany over the past year -- a tiny fraction of the 4.7 million jobless in Spain.
Class of 2012 participant Rafael Gonzalez del Castillo speaks German and could work in Germany. He picked up the language on a student exchange program in the southern town of Darmstadt and lived with German flat-mates in Madrid. But, in perhaps an alarming sign for Europe, he sees more opportunity and cultural affinity in booming Latin America -- and has started to learn Portuguese so he can see work in Brazil.
It's part of a rising trend in Spaniards departing for former European colonies in Latin America, meaning that Europe is losing much of its top-level talent to emerging economies.
"I see Brazil as a country that's going to grow so much in these years," said Gonzalez del Castillo, "And I feel close to them because we are Latin people, and our language is similar."
His fellow architect, 25-year-old David Garcia, is doing his masters in architecture in Spain after spending a year at the university in Regensburg, Germany. While there, Garcia took German lessons outside of his normal studies for the entire period.
Now, Garcia is working for a German company remotely while in Spain, and plans to return there when he finishes -- but none of his classmates have targeted Germany for work even though there are plenty of building opportunities there.
"All the people I am studying with want to go abroad, but they prefer to go to England or South America because it will take them a lot of time for them to learn German," Garcia said.
Meanwhile, there are indications that workers from outside the EU are more willing to learn a new language than those from members of the bloc itself. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said in its 2012 report that while only 3 percent of working-age EU citizens live in a fellow EU country, migrants from outside the EU make up 5 percent of the EU working-age population. And when Germany's economy minister recently launched a program to recruit skilled foreign workers, he turned not to southern Europe's vast pool of jobless workers but to India, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Ten years ago European leaders at a meeting in the Spanish city of Barcelona called for "action to improve the mastery of basic skills, in particular by teaching at least two foreign languages from a very early age." Six years later, the EU's language czar, Leonard Orban, declared that speaking two foreign languages in addition to their mother tongue should be the goal for all citizens of the 27-nation bloc.
The result has been a deluge of programs to subsidize language learning in Europe. Yet a poll of more than 25,000 Europeans earlier this year still found only 54 percent said they were able to hold a conversation in more than one language.
And with austerity eating into European government budgets, the bloc's flagship student exchange program Erasmus, which supports 250,000 students and teachers with grants each year, faces a funding crisis.
"We've had bills for over (euro) 100 million already which we can't honor because there's no money in the pot," said Dennis Abbott, a spokesman for the European Commission's education and multi-lingualism directorate.
The shortfall represents less than 0.1 percent of the EU's annual budget, but the failure to break down language barriers could end up being far costlier.
Edoardo Campanella, a former economic adviser to the Italian government, says labor mobility is fundamental to the EU's common market, and in particular the eurozone, where countries with widely differing economic fortunes share a single currency.
"Labor mobility is an important adjustment mechanism," said Campanella, currently a Fulbright Scholar at the Harvard Kennedy School. "The language hurdle impairs this safe-valve."
At Berlin's Cafe Colectivo, 30-year-old project manager Maria Sarricolea from Spain laughed as she recalled friends asking about the job prospects in Germany.
"A lot of Spanish people think they can come here and get a great job with a bit of English," she said.