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The pandemic helped reverse the brain drain in Italy. But can it continue?



When Elena Parisi, an engineer, left Italy at the age of 22 to pursue career in London five years ago she joined the huge ranks of talented Italians fleeing the slow labor market and the lack of opportunities at home to find work abroad.

But over the past year, when the coronavirus pandemic forced workers around the world to work from home, Ms. Parisi, like many of her compatriots, took the opportunity to actually return home to Italy.

Between Zoom’s meetings and her other job for a recycling company in London, she walked on the beach near her family’s home in Palermo, Sicily, and talked at dawn with recipes to vendors at the local market.

“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 changed a familiar phenomenon – this time the long-term brain drain in Italy. How much things are changing and how permanent these changes will be is a source of debate in the country. But something is obviously different.

Italy, along with Romania and Poland, is among the European countries that send the most workers abroad, according to the European Commission. And the share of Italians living abroad who have a university degree is higher than that of the total population of Italy.

Taking into account the money the country spends on their education, Italy’s brain drain costs the country about 14 billion euros (about $ 17 billion) each year, according to Confindustria, Italy’s largest business association.

Italian lawmakers have long sought to reclaim talented workers with tax breaks, but a bleak labor market, high unemployment, baroque bureaucracy and narrow avenues of progress continue to attract many Italian graduates abroad.

Then the virus seems to have done what years of stimuli could not.

Last year, the number of Italians aged 18 to 34 returning home increased by 20 percent over the previous year, according to the Italian Foreign Ministry.

The Italian government welcomed the return of some of the best and brightest in the country as a silver lining to what was a brutal pandemic for Italy, calling the change a “great opportunity.” There is also a financial benefit, as Italians who spend more than six months in the country have to pay their taxes there.

Paola Pisano, Italy’s minister of technological innovation, told a conference in October that Italy had a chance to take advantage of the skills and innovation that returning Italians had brought back.

She also said that Italy must do its part to keep them there. On the one hand, the country needs a “strong, diffuse, powerful and secure internet connection,” she said, so that those who have moved abroad can “return to their home country and continue working for the company.” in which they worked. “

A group of Italians formed an association called Southworking to promote remote work in the less developed south of Italy, hoping that returning professionals would dedicate their free time and money to improving their hometowns.

“Their ideas, their volunteering, their creativity remain on the land where they live,” said Elena Militello, president of the association, which has returned to Sicily from Luxembourg.

To encourage remote work, the association is setting up a network of cities equipped with high-speed internet connections, an airport or train station nearby, and at least one shared workspace or library with good Wi-Fi.

To map them, the association received help from Carmelo Ignacolo, a doctoral student in urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who returned home to Sicily after being struck by the coronavirus.

In recent months, Mr. Ignacolo has been watching the Mediterranean exams against the backdrop of his zoom screen, teaching classes near his great-grandfather’s olive press, and hiding from the heat by studying in a nearby Greek necropolis.

“I accept 100 percent American professional life,” he said, “but I have a very Mediterranean lifestyle.”

Not only the south of Italy benefits from reverse traffic.

Roberto Franzan, 26, a programmer who created a successful startup in London before joining Google there, returned to his home in Rome in March.

“Go to the bar and you can just start a conversation with almost anyone,” he said. “It worked great for me.” He said a number of interesting start-ups and technology companies were emerging in Italy and that he could imagine investing in the country.

“This moment has made us realize all along that going back to your roots can be a good thing,” he said.

Italian business leaders have called on the government not to waste the opportunity.

“The coronavirus, the face 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 detain “the extraordinary army of young people who have returned home in an emergency.”

But some experts say there aren’t really that many benefits to harden.

While many Italians may have moved back to the Tuscan countryside or to the Sicilian beaches, their minds are still in favor of American, British, Dutch and other foreign companies.

“Zoom will not solve Italy’s problems,” said Enrico Moretti, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who focuses on labor and the urban economy and is himself part of the Italian brain drain.

Brunello Rosa, an economist from London who is also a member of the diaspora, said that the returned Italians “produce 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 matter.”

A more likely result, he said, is that the virus will lead to economic downturns and huge levels of unemployment, which will trigger a new wave of emigration as soon as European countries lift their conclusions.

To really address the problem, he and others said, Italy needs to undertake a thorough structural and cultural reform that streamlines bureaucracy and improves transparency, instead of relying on “people returning home because food is more bad abroad and the weather is bad. “

Mr. Ignacolo, a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, plans to return to the United States to pursue an academic career, and the new company that Mr. Franzan, the programmer, is starting will be based in Delaware.

The disadvantages of working in Italy also worry Ms Parisi, who is concerned that her professional advancement will be hampered by what she sees in the Italian business world, which has a narrow reach for younger workers. She admitted that the lack of sun in London was gloomy and British food was bad for her skin, but said that other things were important in life.

“I’m young, I’m a woman and I’m in a very high position,” she said, explaining that she would return to work in London when her office reopened.

“It was a unique opportunity. “I could both keep my job and live in Italy,” she said of her time there. “But I always knew it would be temporary.”


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