Are bright young Italians stuck in the fast food job trap?

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Thousands of jobs in the fast food sector are set to be created in Italy. Photo: Marco papale/Flickr
13:30 CEST+02:00
Love them or loathe them, fast food chains are spreading their wings across Italy, and the thousands of new jobs they bring are likely to be fiercely contested by young Italians.

Burger King alone is promising to employ a whopping 5,000 workers across 300 new outlets by 2021.

And by 2020, rival McDonald's has plans to open a further 250 restaurants. 

But they are not alone.

KFC ventured into the Italian market in 2014, opening its first store in Rome, with plans to open its third in Milan later this year.

Meanwhile, the coffee chain, Starbucks, said in February that it is finally taking the plunge in Italy, and will open its first store in Milan early next year. 

Once upon a time, such announcements were met with fierce opposition: in 2000, as McDonald's expanded, riot police had to be called in when protesters marched through 20 cities. 

But nowadays they quietly flourish as young Italians compete for jobs with some of the country's most prolific employers. 

When a McDonald's outlet opened in the Mestre train station in Venice in 2014, 1,749 people applied for just 30 positions.

It all comes down to Italy's moribund economy: the county's youth unemployment rate of 39.1 percent is one of the highest in Europe, and despite Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's work reforms, the job market remains volatile.

"The fast food sector is a big employer and a lot of young Italians, also graduates, panic about not being able to find anything else and apply because they see it as a way to get experience in the world of work," Valerio Tabascio, a senior consultant at Hays recruitment in Rome, told The Local.

Luigi, the 34-year-old manager of a Burger King restaurant in central Rome, said he receives "lots of applications, mostly from youngsters".

"The application process is all handled online now, but a couple of years ago I would take in between 10 and 15 CVs a day."

Unlike in other countries, where workers in the fast food sector are often stigmatized for doing what are perceived to be unglamourous and dead-end jobs, Italians view things differently.

“I know that in American films it's always the losers and ex-prisoners who wind up in fast food jobs, but here it's quite different,” Luigi, who has worked at Burger King for the last 14 years, added.

Laura Dal Prà, a 25-year-old who is currently finishing up a masters in psychology at Turin university, agrees.

“I'd definitely work in a fast food restaurant,” she said.

“I perhaps wouldn't want to stay there forever, but where's they shame in it?"

In Italy, a stable fast food job can be a safe choice, even for graduates, who often struggle to find fixed positions and end up working as freelancers.

The average freelancer takes home just €515 a month, according to worker's rights observatory XX Maggio. If a freelancer wants to earn €1000 a month after taxes and accountancy fees, they must gross a whopping €4,000.

“Sure I make a bit less money than my friends, but I have a permanent contract which has allowed me to get a mortgage and raise my child without worrying about next month,” Luigi said.

But according to Tabascio, who worked for a fast-food chain while at university, graduates risk getting "too settled" in the sector and forfeiting the careers they studied for.

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"If they spend three to five years working in McDonald's, then they will struggle to be taken seriously in their chosen field," he said.

"Fast-food jobs should be the kind of thing you do for earning money as a student or something that's just temporary while job-hunting."

He admits that Italy doesn't make it easy for graduates to find steady work, especially as the labour market is still so rigid, but says that graduates could be more proactive.

"Part of the problem here is that they don't know the resources that are available to them - such as employment agencies or online job sites - universities do not do enough to prepare graduates for the world of work," he added.

"There are many companies struggling to fill professional positions - the problem is finding the candidates, and part of that is due to graduates taking a job in the fast food sector because they worry about finding another job or aren't fully aware of the resources available."  

But while fast food jobs are not stigmatized, they do go against the grain of the country's 'slow food' culture – something which is close to many young Italians' hearts.

“I don't eat fast food or believe in its philosophy, so the job isn't hugely gratifying in that respect,” Luigi said.

“For the past 14 years I've brought a packed lunch.”

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