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Reversing the brain drain: how Plovdiv lures young Bulgarians home

The Guardian logo The Guardian 07/05/2019 Maria Georgieva in Plovdiv
Employees manufacture refrigerators at the Liebherr Marica EOOD household appliances headquarters in Radinowo near Plovdiv. © Bernd von Jutrczenka/picture alliance via Getty Images Employees manufacture refrigerators at the Liebherr Marica EOOD household appliances headquarters in Radinowo near Plovdiv.

In Plovdiv, Bulgaria, locals are taking long, leisurely walks along the main pedestrian street. Nearby is the Dzhumaya mosque with its mix of Byzantine and Old Bulgarian architectural styles. The unhurried atmosphere is typical of the laidback character of Plovdiv, one of Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited cities.

It is this relaxed pace of life, combined with affordable living expenses and the city’s expanding IT sector, that is attracting a new type of citizen to the city: young Bulgarian returnees disillusioned with life abroad.

We face challenges and uncertainty. With a potential Brexit it can get worse for Bulgarians in the UK

 - Maria Stancheva

Maria Stancheva, 25, moved with her mother to the UK in search of a better life. Ten years ago, Bulgarians abroad could support their families with one salary. Now, with political upheavals such as Brexit and changing financial markets, foreign capitals are no longer so attractive.

This is certainly true for Stancheva, who studied international relations and human resources in Cardiff for four years. On graduation she found it impossible to get a job in her field.

After visiting a career fair aimed at Bulgarians in the UK she realised her skills were needed – in Bulgaria. Now a recruitment specialist at the Plovdiv-based outsourcing company 60k, Stancheva says: “My salary is low, but my living standards here are better.”

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Reflecting on her decision to return, Stancheva points out that for Bulgarians, the grass is not always greener in another country.

“We face challenges and uncertainty. With a potential Brexit it can get worse for Bulgarians in the UK.”

Bulgaria has experienced a huge dip in its population over the past 20 years, falling from nearly 9 million to just over 7 million at the end of 2017, according to the National Statistical Institute (NSI). Current forecasts predict that by 2050 the population will have shrunk by another quarter.

Emigration explains two-thirds of this loss (the remaining third is due to declining birth rates). In 2017, 31,586 Bulgarians changed their current address to one abroad. “We have an entire Bulgarian capital living abroad,” says Stancheva. It is not simply that huge numbers of Bulgarians are leaving: also, every second emigrant is young, in the 20-39 age bracket, according to the NSI. The most popular destinations for Bulgarians heading abroad are Germany (22%), the UK (16.3%) and Spain (12.2%).

But in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city, newcomers outnumbered leavers in 2017, defying the national trend. Statistics from the office of the mayor, Ivan Totev, show a 7% increase in 20- to 29-year-olds in the city.

“We are already reversing the brain drain, by offering young Bulgarians a lifestyle they could not afford abroad,” said Svetoslav Braykov, 60k’s regional manager, speaking from the company’s offices in a tall corporate building squeezed between old Soviet apartment blocks on the outskirts of town. “People are still leaving Bulgaria, but before they did not return.”

The company employs 1,550 people in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, and Plovdiv and offers work to students and graduates in the early stages of their careers. It appears to target its recruitment strategy at those whose experience abroad did not live up to their expectations.

Traditionally, Plovdiv’s largest employer has been the manufacturing sector, but since the city began to reinvent itself as a European hub for urban development in 2014, the IT sector and its higher-than-average wages has been at the forefront of the city’s image. Outsourcing companies are also keen to copy cities such as Tallinn in Estonia and add “digital nomad” to Plovdiv’s employment options.

It is not just Brexit that has made returning home seem attractive. “We’ve benefited from the instability in Europe, and the economic crisis in other EU countries, such as Spain and Greece,” says Totev, the mayor.

The city is small, with a current population of 345,000, which may work in its favour. Local business investors describe Sofia as overcrowded, with unwelcome competition from other companies. Indeed, in 2017 the labour market in Plovdiv and surrounding commuter towns increased by 38,000 people, more than any other region in the country, according to data provided by the mayor’s office.

But not everyone is convinced the city is experiencing a renaissance. Critics claim the mayor’s office might have altered the statistics to present a more flattering picture.

“The mayor built a hotel with our tax money,” said a 29-year-old business owner who wanted to remain anonymous. Such accusations are common, with many denouncing Totev as an oligarch and pointing to allegations and investigations into his financial dealings by various Bulgarian news outlets.

Some are also disappointed with projects affiliated with the city’s trendy creative district, Kapana. Locals complain that instead of investing in the artists who made the district popular in the first place, authorities have instead supported commercial shops and bars to attract tourists, killing off the atmosphere and turning the district into a dead end.

Meanwhile, life in the city goes on at the same calm pace. Drinking local wine in a downtown bar, 30-year-old Ivan Dzheferov, a community manager from the startup hub Trakia Tech, is joking about Plovdiv’s guiding philosophy, aylyak. In Turkish, the word means “idle”; for Bulgarians it means not to hurry pointlessly – if there is a job that needs to be done, it can be postponed. The city’s population might be increasing, but there is little sign the pace of life will change.

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