AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Portugal is the poorest country in Europe. It got an E.U. bailout earlier this year and now it needs to grow its economy to pay off its debts. But that's made harder by another dubious title Portugal holds: Europe's least educated country.
From Lisbon, Lauren Frayer reports on Portugal's low high school graduation rate.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Ana Dias and Ruth Cardozo are lifelong friends who now work together at a shoe store here in the Portuguese capital. Cardozo dropped out of high school 10 years ago, to take this job.
RUTH CARDOZA: I don't know. I think I quit because I want to have my money and not be asking my parents, you know. I think it was because of that, yeah. My boyfriend needs a house, things. Yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FRAYER: Her friend, Dias, on the other hand, stayed in school and then got a nursing degree, but can't find work in a hospital. So she finds herself in the exact same job as her drop-out friend, selling shoes.
ANA DIAS: I spent money for years getting graduated. And what about now? I'm here, ready - but no one grabs me to work.
CARDOZA: She likes selling shoes but it's not her thing. You know, it's not what she wants.
FRAYER: The tale of these two friends illustrates a deep crisis in Portugal. Only 28 percent of Portuguese over the age of 30 have graduated from high school. Not college - high school. That's compared to 85 percent in Germany and about 90 in the U.S., if you include GEDs.
Portugal was a military dictatorship through the 1970s. Back then, kids were required to go to school for just three years.
Luis Pais Antunes is a former lawmaker who grew up in that era.
LUIS PAIS ANTUNES: Young people was forced by their parents to work on agricultural or shoe factories. So we are still paying the price of some historical options.
FRAYER: Typical Portuguese industries - shoe-stitching, wine-making or textiles - don't require a diploma. And Portugal was a late-bloomer in Europe, in terms of adding white-collar jobs, says economic historian Pedro Lains.
PEDRO LAINS: Whereas most of Europe transformation from an agrarian society to an industrial, and then service society, was fully completed in the 1960s or 1970s, in Portugal that transformation occurred between 1950 and the year 2000, more or less.
FRAYER: Since then, education requirements have increased here and many more students graduate these days. But now, there's another problem in Europe's debt crisis: how to find jobs for those graduates. Lains says it's a simple question of supply and demand.
LAINS: And the supply of education in the last 20 to 30 years has risen in a very rapid way. And with an economy that has been growing very slowly in the last 15 years and has been declining very sharply in the last two years, it's not a surprise that this mismatch occurs.
FRAYER: That mismatch is prompting graduates to go abroad for work, and some current students to drop out, which is allowed now at 16.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)
FRAYER: A crowd of college students showed up at an anti-austerity protest last month in Lisbon, complaining that the economy may force them to quit school.
Pedro Martims is going to class by day and works nights in a call center. His grades have suffered.
PEDRO MARTIMS: It's a big sacrifice, including my father lost his job. I have to help in my home also. So it's been quite difficult.
FRAYER: With a flood of cheap Asian imports, Portugal's textiles are no longer competitive. Things like high-tech or wind energy could fuel the economy going forward. The challenge is to grow those industries by using both aging, less-educated workers and younger, sometimes overqualified ones.
Back at the shoe store where she works, I ask Dias, the nurse, if she regrets her decision to stay in school.
DIAS: No, I don't regret because that was my dream and I am still chasing it. I don't know where...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DIAS: ...or when, but I will get my reward someday. At least I think like that.
FRAYER: For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.