Top minds running for exits as Italy flounders

Qualified professionals are losing hope in Italy's ability to revive its stagnant economy and eradicate cronyism. photograph: paolo bona/reuters

Qualified professionals are losing hope in Italy's ability to revive its stagnant economy and eradicate cronyism. photograph: paolo bona/reuters


For more than a century unskilled Italians have gone abroad to escape poverty, but these days the people running for the exits are among the country’s top brains.

A growing wave of technologists, researchers and entrepreneurs is fleeing the motherland. Few think the weekend’s elections will alleviate the gloom.

“I am Italian and I love Italy. But every time I come back to visit, I see the country is sliding a little further back,” said Andrea Ballarini, an economics graduate who left for the US nearly three years ago.

When Ballarini graduated from the elite Bocconi, Italy’s best-known university, he had no plans to leave home and dreamed of setting up his own company in his native land.

Never came back

But as economic crisis began to bite three years ago, the 32- year-old crossed the Atlantic.

“My business partner and I bought a ticket for San Francisco. We just wanted to check Silicon Valley out. We never came back,” said Ballarini, who was won over by the pro-business atmosphere of the west coast and now runs a virtual business fair platform called HyperFair.

“Back in Italy, each day began with a list of the problems I had to solve. Here I make each day a list of the things I want to do,” he added.

Faced with soaring unemployment and a declining economy, young Italians are following previous generations in seeking their fortunes abroad, disillusioned by an economy in which graduates must often take precarious or menial jobs.

Data from Italian statistical institute Istat shows the proportion of emigrants with a degree doubled from 2001 and 2010, to 15.9 per cent of all migrants.

Higher wages

They go to European nations like Britain and Germany but also, despite working restrictions, to the US. Their monthly salaries are on average €540 higher than those of similar professionals who stay at home.

Qualified professionals are losing hope in Italy’s ability to revive its stagnant economy and eradicate cronyism, red tape and a punitive tax regime.

Italy has been in recession since mid-2011 and the euro zone’s most sluggish economy for well over a decade.

At just below 37 per cent, youth unemployment in Italy is the highest since records began 20 years ago. The “lost generation” is a hot election issue.

Amid rising unemployment, even more posts than before appear to be awarded through connections rather than talent.

Some join the brain drain even before finishing education. “Tens of thousands of those studying for a PhD or research post are leaving Italy,” said Mario Calderini, a special adviser to education minister Francesco Profumo.

“We are losing top-quality students and researchers but are not attracting a similar number of high-quality people.” Italian universities are unattractive to foreign students and graduates because of the low wages, the complex hiring process and the use of Italian. According to OECD data, only 4 per cent of students at Italian universities are foreigners and there are few foreign teachers.

Until recently, offers for university jobs were published only in Italian and the system tended to favour internal candidates from local universities.

Calderini said the technocrat government of Mario Monti had introduced the use of English for university job adverts, but much needed to be done to woo foreign researchers, who tend to earn more outside Italy.

“The difference in salary is a factor, as well as the risk of unemployment,” said Calderini.

Small companies

“Not everyone is able to find a job, as Italian industry absorbs very few of these highly-educated professionals.”

More than 95 per cent of Italian firms employ fewer than 10 people. They do not have the resources for RD and the cash-strapped state is cutting back in its own research funding.

Some institutions are trying to lure the talented home.

The Genoa-based Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), founded six years ago, specialises in bio-robotics, a futuristic branch of robotic engineering that has blossomed in Italy.

The institute has brought Italian scientists back by offering competitive wages, an international working environment and well-funded, innovative projects. Around 17 per cent of the scientists at the IIT are Italians who used to work abroad.

“There are very few places in Italy where you can combine a technological background with scientific research,” said Diego Ghezzi (32), researching synaptic neuroscience at the IIT.

“If I hadn’t come here, I would have had to leave the country.” – (Reuters)