Estonians curing the summertime blues

  • 2002-07-18
  • Sara Toth
An increasing number of young Estonians are broadening their horizons and bettering their bank balances through summer trips to the West, as Sara Toth reports.

Dmitri Petrov and Sofia Kapatsenja recall their experience working in America almost everyday. The couple said they can't help it. After all, they used savings from two summers of work in the United States to buy their apartment in Tallinn.

Petrov and Kapatsenja, both 22, are some of the growing number of young Estonians who have embarked on summer work and travel programs in the United States and Western Europe. Five years ago this was a rare way to spend the summer, but now a whole industry has developed to help high-school and college students go abroad.

During the summer of 2000, Petrov and Kapatsenja worked at a resort in Michigan and last year at a restaurant in South Carolina. Like most others, they went abroad for three main reasons: to see another country, improve their language skills and earn money.

"It was just so-so the first time," said Petrov, who graduated this spring with a degree in civil engineering from Tallinn Tech-nical University.

He said they each earned about $3,000 but didn't see much beyond the small town of Petoski, Michigan. The second time was better because they traveled, he said. They went to Florida, Atlanta, New York and Chicago.

"It was always our childhood dream to go to Disney World, and we finally went," laughed Kapat-senja, who holds a business management degree. "But it's probably better to go there when you are a little kid."

The first step to going abroad for Petrov and Kapatsenja was to locate a work-and-travel program, which would get them visas and guarantee their employment in the United States. They chose Tokkroos OU, one of the Tallinn companies that provides work and travel experiences for students age 18 to 28.

They took out students loans to help pay the $500 program fee and buy plane tickets to the United States. They admit to being a little nervous when they paid they money to the agency.

"But one of our friends had already been to work in America through this, so we thought that everything would go all right for us," Petrov said.

Once they started working in the United States it took about a week to pay off the loans, he said.

Risky business

In the last few years at least five large work-and-travel companies like Tokroos have started in Tallinn. The growth of this industry signifies the increasing number of students who work abroad.

Most companies charge a program fee of about $800, and a job-placement fee of up to $20. In addition, each student must pay about $10 for a visa application and buy a plane ticket.

"It is a very fast-developing business," said Marina Kutuzova, director of the Bellnor Language School, which runs student work-and-travel programs.

She said the programs were popular because they provided an affordable way to see other countries and to often return home with more money.

"I'd go for a work-and-travel package myself if I were 10 years younger," she said.

Bellnor has offered language classes since 1997 but started offering work and internship programs in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, France and Sweden a few years ago.

"We realized there was a demand for practicing the languages," Kutuzova said. She said the number of people going abroad with Bellnor had been increasing each year.

Despite the downturn in the American economy and the events of Sept. 11, also the agency Evmar Agentuur has more students in the United States this summer than last. Last year, the company placed 80 students in American jobs; this year it has 100 working in the United States.

"It's growing each year," said Oksana Golovina, director of Evmar. "It becomes more popular because people talk to their friends."

Golovina said that because the industry was growing, Estonia needed legislation to regulate it and an official way of licensing exchange companies. It is not hard to find students with tales of taking money to an office to pay for a program only to find the office closed. And some have lost money because the company folded after they paid.

"This gives the industry a bad reputation," Golovina said.

But it seems that as the popularity of working abroad has grown, only the reliable companies have survived, she said. Although no statistics are available, Robert Kurvits, spokesman for the Estonian Police Board said that police received fewer calls each year about shams in student exchange companies.

"There were more calls about this five years ago because the whole system was younger and the possibility to cheat was bigger," Kurvis said.

Still, Golovina is working to at least form a union of companies to help give them more legitimacy. Kurvits agreed that unions or special licensing would make the industry more reliable for clients.

Get a job

Despite the risks of relying on exchange companies and the improvement of the Estonian job market, many young people continue to seek work abroad because they say the pay-off is so great.

Summer employment is still not common in Estonia, said Alice Lugna, the head of international relations for the country's labor market board. She said the country's high unemployment rate (12 percent) makes summer jobs hard to find. And the low average monthly salary (about $300) makes it seem more attractive to relax during the summer than to work.

But for students, summer jobs are important, she said. If students can't work abroad, they should try to have some employment experience in Estonia, even if it doesn't pay a lot.

"Work experience is the first criteria an employer looks for when deciding whether to to hire someone," Lugna said. "Even summer jobs can help decide this."

Kapatsenja and Petrov said the higher American wages were definitely a factor in working abroad rather than in Estonia for two summers.

"Here we would have had to work for 20 years, not two summers, to buy our apartment," Petrov said. "But it was also good because we got to see new places and travel. Students who go abroad now should make sure they have time to travel and not just work."

Golovina says many student who go abroad through Evmar return to Estonia with about $3,000.

"But we had some boys who spent the last month in Las Vegas and came back with zero," Golovina said. "It's really up to them and what they want to do."

Working and traveling abroad is one more sign of Estonia's progress as a transition economy and one more factor that highlights the differences between generations.

"Our parents don't understand why we want to go away from home," Kapatsenja said. "The first time we were in America, our parents were afraid for us. They called everyday."

Lugna said work experience abroad would help develop Esto-nian companies.

"When people come back from abroad they bring fresh ideas," she said. "So it's good for all sides. But if well-educated people start leaving and don't come back then that will not be good. But I don't see this as a trend yet."

Petrov said he and most of his peers saw working abroad as a temporary thing - a way to spend a summer.

"I want to see as much as possible," he said. "I can always come back here to Estonia."