The Pandemic Helped Reverse Italy’s Brain Drain. But Can It Last?
When the engineer Elena Parisi left Italy at the age of 22 to pursue a career Five years ago, in London, she joined the numerous talented Italians who had escaped a sluggish job market and a lack of opportunities at home to find work abroad.
But last year, when the coronavirus pandemic forced employees around the world to work from home, Ms. Parisi, like many of her compatriots, took the opportunity to really return to Italy.
Between the Zoom meetings and her other work for a recycling company in London, she took long walks on the beach near her family’s home in Palermo, Sicily, talking to vendors in the local market about recipes at dawn.
“The quality of life here is a thousand, a thousand times better,” said Ms. Parisi, who is now in Rome.
As with so many things, the virus has a well-known phenomenon – this time Italy’s longstanding brain drain. How much things are changing, and how permanent those changes will be, is a source of debate in the country. But something is clearly different.
According to the European Commission, Italy is one of the European countries, along with Romania and Poland, that send the most workers abroad. And the proportion of Italians living abroad with a university degree is higher than that of the Italian population.
Given the money the country spends on education, Italy’s brain drain costs the country an estimated 14 billion euros (about $ 17 billion) each year, according to Confindustria, Italy’s largest business association.
Italian lawmakers had long tried to win back talented workers with tax breaks, but a bleak job market, high unemployment, baroque bureaucracy, and narrow career opportunities continued to draw many Italian graduates abroad.
Then the virus seemed to do what years of incentives couldn’t.
Last year, the number of Italians between the ages of 18 and 34 returning home rose 20 percent year over year, according to the Italian Foreign Ministry.
The Italian government has welcomed the return of some of the country’s best and brightest countries as a silver lining to a pandemic brutal for Italy, calling the postponement a “great opportunity”. There is also a financial advantage as Italians who spend more than six months in the country have to pay their taxes there.
Paola Pisano, Italy’s Minister for Technological Innovation, said at a conference in October that Italy would have the chance to benefit from the skills and innovation that returning Italians bring with them.
She also said Italy must do its part to keep them there. For one thing, the country needs “a strong, diffuse, powerful and secure internet connection” so that those who have moved abroad can “return to their country and continue working for the company they worked for”.
A group of Italians formed an association called Southworking to encourage remote working from the less developed south of Italy in the hope that returning professionals would devote their free time and money to improving their hometowns.
“Your ideas, your volunteer work and your creativity stay on the land where you live,” said Elena Militello, the association’s president, who returned to Sicily from Luxembourg.
To encourage remote work, the association creates a network of cities with fast internet connections, an airport or train station nearby, and at least one common work area or library with good WiFi.
To map them, the association received help from Carmelo Ignaccolo, a graduate student in urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who returned to Sicily after the coronavirus.
For the past few months, Mr Ignaccolo has been overseeing exams with the Mediterranean in the background of his zoom screen, teaching classes near his great-grandfather’s olive press, and escaping the heat by studying in a nearby Greek necropolis.
“I am 100 percent for an American professional life,” he said, “but I have a very Mediterranean lifestyle.”
Not only the south of Italy benefits from the return traffic.
Roberto Franzan, 26, a programmer who built a successful start-up in London before joining Google, returned to his home in Rome in March.
“You go to the bar and you can just start talking to just about anyone,” he said. “It worked great for me.” He said a number of interesting startups and tech companies had popped up in Italy and he could envision investing in the country.
“That moment has given us all along that getting back to your roots can be a good thing,” he said.
Italy’s business leaders have urged the government not to miss the opportunity.
“Coronavirus, the U-turn of the brain drain,” wrote Michel Martone, a former deputy labor minister, in the Roman newspaper Il Messaggero. He called on lawmakers to find a way to sustain the “extraordinary army of young people who have returned home in the face of the emergency”.
However, some experts say there aren’t really that many benefits to solidify.
While many Italians may have returned to the Tuscan countryside or Sicilian beaches, their thoughts still benefit American, British, Dutch, and other overseas businesses.
“Zoom isn’t going to solve Italy’s problems,” said Enrico Moretti, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley who focuses on labor and urban economics and is part of the Italian brain drain himself.
Brunello Rosa, a London economist who is another member of the diaspora, said returned Italians “produce an activity for a foreign entity – they create value abroad and income abroad.” He added that “the fact that they spend their salary in Italy doesn’t really make a difference.”
A more likely outcome, he said, is that the virus will lead to economic rubble and huge unemployment that will spark another wave of emigration once European countries lift their locks.
To really tackle the problem, Italy and others would need to undertake profound structural and cultural reforms that tighten bureaucracy and improve transparency, rather than relying on “people returning home because the food is bad abroad and the weather is bad “.
Mr. Ignaccolo, the MIT graduate student, plans to return to the US to pursue his academic career and the new company that programmer Mr. Franzan is starting will be based in Delaware.
The disadvantages of working in Italy are also of concern to Ms Parisi, who is concerned that her career advancement would be hampered in what she believes is an Italian business world with limited scope for younger workers. She admitted London’s lack of sun was dreary and British food bad for her skin, but said other things in life were important too.
“I am young, I am a woman and I am in a very high position,” she said, explaining that she would return to her job in London when her office reopened.
“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I could both keep the job and live in Italy, ”she said of her time there. “But I always knew it would only be temporary.”