Italy is not often considered a top destination for career advancement. Many young, educated Italians are leaving the country for better work prospects, while foreigners in Italy are far more likely to move here for lifestyle or love than for a fatter paycheck.
But O'Farrell, who set up his own business in Rome and has helped hundreds of others do the same, says the country is a "gold mine".
"I would estimate that about 95 percent of foreigners give up and think they can't make it here, and that's a pity because there are so many opportunities in Italy. Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about," he tells The Local.
Photo: Damien O'Farrell
He admits that an abundance of patience and perseverence is necessary for anyone hoping to 'make it' in Italy, but says that problems with perception are behind much of the disappointment expats experience.
“If you’re sent to Kazakhstan on a work assignment, you expect challenges, but in Italy, many people expect the dolce vita: a life of sun and aperitivo. Then when it’s harder than they imagined, it dampens their enthusiasm," he explains. "You have to brace yourself for things not going the way you want."
Other clients have approached O'Farrell saying they're tired of life in New York, London and other major cities, but haven't put much thought into how they would get by in Italy. "Unless you’re independently wealthy, you’ll still have to work in Italy," he reminds them. "That doesn’t change - though you might get to see the Colosseum on your commute!"
Photo: Hans Poldoja/Flickr
Plenty has changed since he first arrived here. An increase in the cost of living has meant it's even more essential for newcomers to have a clear plan for their finances. Meanwhile, it has become much harder to find accommodation in the big city centres, and a wave of migration has in some places changed the attitude of Italians towards foreigners, O'Farrell notes.
But the two biggest obstacles faced by new arrivals have remained constant: the language barrier and Italian bureaucracy.
READ ALSO: 'Italian bureaucracy is like Purgatory'
O'Farrell says it took him two "extremely difficult" years to overcome those obstacles and get over the frustration of not being able to make himself understood - both in social and work contexts. But he seized the opportunity to learn something new, making it his mission to figure out how Italian admin worked.
It was no mean feat, and when he realized how many other foreigners were equally lost, he wrote a course to teach them the intricacies of the Italian system, before starting work at a relocation company.
"In the 1990s, there wasn’t much information about these things, and certainly not in English, so I spotted a business opportunity. Pre-Internet, it was very challenging," he notes.
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There are two pieces of advice O'Farrell gives to each of his coaching clients.
The first is to take a language course before moving to Italy - he recommends between 60 and 90 hours of teaching. And the second is to get a lawyer and accountant on your side.
"Don't try to start doing things on your own - it's not worth it - and stay away from legal advice on online expat forums, which is usually outdated or based on personal experience," he warns.
He also recommends setting aside much more time for each administrative task than you expect. Applying for permits, licences, and schemes which support new businesses takes time and paperwork - and while many countries make an effort to process work permits quickly to attract business, that's not the case in Italy.
File photo: Pexels
Finding work is the biggest challenge for most of the people O'Farrell works with, and in fact he often advises them not to try to find work, but to create it themselves.
"Being your own boss is not without its challenges, but in certain industries, you can do really well, whereas going down the employee route is often not the right thing in Italy. Salaries are very low in comparison to the cost of living," he says.
"Services is a good place to start; Italy is an enormous consumer market. People live at home a lot longer here so have surplus income - they replace their mobile phones extremely often, for example."
Another tip he offers is to treat any venture as a fully-fledged business, rather than just planning to teach the occasional English lesson, for example.
"It's expensive to live in the major cities, and a lot of people come here thinking they'll get by just doing a little bit. You have to make things happen and turn your idea into a business by using social media, promoting yourself, and gaining contacts."
And when it comes to contacts, O'Farrell reminds anyone daunted by networking in a foreign country that "people are similar around the world".
"In Italy, cold-calling doesn’t really work. When I called people, they'd ask who I was and where I got the number. If I'd been given it by a friend, it would open doors and people would suddenly be really friendly."
"There are the extra obstacles of language and newness, but succeeding in the Italian job market and in Italy more generally is just like anywhere else - it requires input."
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Photo: Catherine Wilson/Flickr