Brain drain, brain gain

Ogni anno circa tremila ricercatori italiani prendono la via dell’estero, alla ricerca di migliori opportunità di lavoro, retribuzioni più elevate e prospettive di carriera. Questa  “fuga dei cervelli” dall’Italia si traduce in un impoverimento delle più promettenti risorse umane che all’estero contribuiscono invece allo sviluppo economico dei Paesi di destinazione. La sfida futura per l’Italia sarà trasformare il cosiddetto ‘brain drain’ in ‘brain gain’, cioé sfruttare questo fenomeno di acquisizione di competenze all’estero per riportare a casa professionisti ancora più qualificati.

The term “brain drain” has been coined in recent years by media and scholars to describe a phenomenon that has negatively been affecting Italy while, at the same time, benefitting several foreign nations: that is, the flight of the most highly educated and skilled young Italians taking their talent abroad in search of career opportunities and professional rewards currently unobtainable in the Bel Paese.

Data analysis of official figures shows that over the last two decades approximately 500,000 Italians between the ages of 18 to 39 took jobs or research positions in more economically dynamic European Union countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and France alone. However, when factoring in unofficial figures, the reality is that numbers are possibly even twice as high. Supporting this scenario is evidence provided to the Italian National Institute for Statistics by The Registry of Italians Resident Abroad (A.I.R.E.), on the basis of the data and information supplied by foreign missions. According to the most recent figures, the number of Italians relocating abroad for a minimum of 12 months has almost doubled between 2006 and 2015. Last year alone, roughly 100,000 took up residence in a foreign country, while only 28,000 moved back to Italy; the emigration to European destinations of educated and skilled Italian Millennials reached 50,000 in 2015.

It is undeniable that these days the mood among young people is characterized by dissatisfaction with the state of the country and the lack of social change or economic opportunities it has to offer. In 2015, in an effort to bring much needed oxygen to the country’s economy and institutions while both attempting to retain crucial talent and countervailing the brain drain by affording better opportunities within national borders, 41-year-old Prime Minister Matteo Renzi - Italy’s youngest prime minister ever - implemented a series of radical reforms that were the platform on which he won the elections in 2014. One in particular, known as the “Jobs Act,” has reconfigured Italy’s labor market which, until recently, had been a major obstacle for young people on account of its lack of flexibility. A critical step has been the suppression of the abuse of the “collaboration contracts,” precarious contracts often used to disguise an actual employment relationship, affecting about 200,000 young employees. These contracts were converted into wage labor contracts starting in early 2016. 

Part of the root problem can certainly be attributed to a prolonged period of sluggish, stagnant economy at home. In spite of being the 8th largest economy in the world, between 2000 and 2015 the per capita income dropped and the GDP shrank slightly. The youth unemployment rate is notoriously one of the highest in the EU, greatly affected by insufficient vocational training, also one of the main weaknesses of Italy’s job market. Even among those holding a job, there is still an unsettling perception that nepotism and corruption benefit the well-connected at the expenses of the well-prepared. The result is that emigration seems for many a route to explore rather than succumbing to unemployment or underemployment at home. Evidence gathered in the last 20 years does support the claim set forth by the most skilled and best qualified young Italians that opportunities for a successful career abroad are significantly higher than in their home country.

The brain drain trend started in the late 1980s, with PhDs and researchers unable to secure a position at local universities due to cumbrous bureaucracy, lack of research funds and facilities, a low level of public and private research, and development investment, or political pressure. Since then, many others, in particular healthcare practitioners, high tech and software specialists, engineers, managers, museum curators, and musicians, have followed suit. The main destination for scientists is undeniably the U.S., a huge magnet attracting about 34% of Italian “brains,” followed by 26% going to the UK, while France ranked high among the rest attracting 11%.

Data also shows that expats moving abroad for less than two years prefer other EU countries; those who relocate for a period of 2 to 10 years choose the UK, while young talents leaving for more than 10 years favor America.

The Italian government has attempted to lure the young workforce back by offering a 30% reduction in taxable income for skilled workers under a broader program seeking to repatriate specialized professionals into the country. The measure applies to EU citizens with college degrees who have lived for at least 24 months in Italy, and who, although still formally residents of their native country, have worked steadily as employee, contractors or entrepreneurs outside of Italy for the past two years or longer. It also applies to individuals who have been pursuing a course of study lasting more than 24 months and leading to a degree or a post-graduate specialization and to those who have not been fiscally resident in Italy in the previous five years. In exchange for qualifying for the tax break, workers must commit to living in Italy for at least two years and demonstrate a work relationship with a company or business within Italy or with a parent, sister company or subsidiary of the Italian business enterprise.

The new expatriates no longer build Little Italys around the world as places to gather together, protect and preserve their regional and cultural identity. These days, they establish a critical web of networking business connections, professional organizations, think tanks, and events that link this flourishing Italy-outside-of-Italy with the global arena. Such critical high tech mingling is able to generate more business and valuable new ideas, as well as close the circle to somehow reconnect Italy, iwith the critical human resources it has lost. Brain drain, brain gain.