Could the pandemic reverse the ‘brain drain’ in southern Italy?

There are hopes that southern Italy could experience an economic revival amid the pandemic, as up to 100,000 workers have moved south - many of them to return home.

Could the pandemic reverse the 'brain drain' in southern Italy?
Corrado Paterno Castello, one of the two founding members of food startup BoniViri, on April 28, 2021 in Catania. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Sipping a craft beer on a warm spring evening in Catania, Sicily, Corrado Paterno Castello spares a thought for friends and colleagues he left behind in Milan, 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) north.

“Today, between meetings, I had a swim at the beach,” the 29-year-old entrepreneur told AFP, with a beaming smile. “The quality of life you have here is very different from what you experience up north, and it is priceless.”

Workers across the world have taken advantage of enforced home-working during the coronavirus pandemic to move to warmer climes, requiring only a plug for their laptop and a decent internet connection.

READ ALSO: Could Italy’s abandoned villages be revived after the coronavirus outbreak?

But in Italy, where for generations those from the relatively poorer south have sought work in the north, it has been a chance for people like Paterno Castello to go home — perhaps for good.

‘Free to return’

Italy has an old history of regional disparities, driving internal migration from rural or underdeveloped areas, mostly in the south, to wealthier urban centres in the north like Milan, a business, fashion and finance hub.

“Out of my high school class, nearly everybody left … at least 15 out of 20 people,” said Elena Militello, a PhD student from Palermo.

“But now some have come back, there’s a group of three that has returned to Sicily and found work.”

Restructuring work at the “Isola Catania” co-working space in Catania. Photo: ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP

The 28-year-old came back in 2020 after spending years in Milan, the United States, Germany and Luxembourg, and is now actively campaigning for more people to follow in her footsteps.

She is one of the founders of the South Working association, which acts as a think tank, advocacy group and support network for anyone considering a move down south. It has around 10,000 followers on Facebook.

On its website, the association calls itself a community of “young professionals, managers, entrepreneurs and scholars, mostly born in southern Italy” who left to pursue their ambitions.

“Today, our common desire is to be able and free to go back home,” they say.

Svimez, a research institute, said in December that as many as 100,000 workers went south during the pandemic, adding that it was a historic opportunity to reverse the brain drain that has plagued the Italian south.

‘Enormous potential’

Before the pandemic struck, Milan was seen as Italy’s most dynamic and successful city.

But the south has many advantages, from cheaper living costs to less traffic and pollution — and the weather. In Catania, average temperatures do
not fall below 10 degrees Celsius (50 Fahrenheit), even in mid-winter.

Mariano Corso, a leadership and innovation professor at the School of Management of Milan’s Polytechnic University, said the so-called south working phenomenon could benefit all of Italy.

A healthy “competition between territories” should drive up public services everywhere, and “for southern cities this is a huge opportunity to seize the
moment … and get back in the game,” he said.

Public transport and internet can be a problem across the south, including in Sicily, but Militello’s association is lobbying for better service.

READ ALSO: Digital divide – The parts of Italy still waiting for fast wifi

It is also teaming up with private investors developing co-working spaces for south workers.

One is due to open next month in Palazzo Biscari, a grandiose 18th century palace in downtown Catania once used as a set for a Coldplay music video.

“I can see dozens of companies and hundreds of people working here,” Antonio Perdichizzi, founder of the Isola Catania co-working space, told AFP as workers and decorators raced around him in brightly coloured rooms.

“There is enormous potential in having young and older people who have worked in Italy and Europe or in other parts of the world and who are coming back home due to the pandemic.”

A new buzz

Jobs in Sicily are still hard to come by — unemployment in 2020 was 18 percent, double the national average — but growing numbers of people moving there while working online for northern firms is creating its own buzz.

READ ALSO: Fast trains and extended building bonus: How Italy’s EU recovery plan could affect you

After studying and working in Milan, Paris and Tunisia, Paterno Castello returned to Catania last year for home-working. While there, he reunited with a high school friend to launch an organic food start-up called Boniviri.

While admitting the cultural and social scene of a city of around 300,000 is no match with Milan’s more cosmopolitan vibe, he describes Catania as “a place where things are happening”.

“A few years ago it wasn’t like this, you needed to go north to make things happen … now there is innovation, culture here as well, there are young people like us who want to bring something new.”

By AFP’s Alvise Armellini

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Why Italian resorts are struggling to fill jobs this summer

Italy's tourist season is expected to be back in full swing this year - but will there be enough workers to meet the demand?

Why Italian resorts are struggling to fill jobs this summer

Italy’s tourist numbers are booming, sparking hopes that the industry could see a return to something not far off pre-pandemic levels by the summer.

There’s just one catch: there aren’t nearly enough workers signing up for seasonal jobs this year to supply all that demand.

READ ALSO: Will tourism in Italy return to pre-pandemic levels this year?

“There’s a 20 percent staff shortage, the situation is dramatic,” Fulvio Griffa, president of the Italian tourist operators federation Fiepet Confesercenti, told the Repubblica news daily.

Estimates for how many workers Italy is missing this season range from 70,000 (the figure given by the small and medium enterprise federation Conflavoro PMI) to 300-350,000 (the most recent estimate from Tourism Minister Massimo Garavaglia, who last month quoted 250,000).

Whatever the exact number is, everyone agrees: it’s a big problem.

READ ALSO: Dining outdoors and hiking: How visitors plan to holiday in Italy this summer

Italy isn’t the only European country facing this issue. France is also short an estimated 300,000 seasonal workers this year. Spain is down 50,000 waiters, and Austria is missing 15,000 hired hands across its food and tourism sectors.

Italy’s economy, however, is particularly dependent on tourism. If the job vacancies can’t be filled and resorts are unable to meet the demand anticipated this summer, the country stands to lose an estimated  €6.5 billion.

Italy's tourism businesses are missing an estimated 20 percent of workers.
Italy’s tourism businesses are missing an estimated 20 percent of workers. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

“After two years of pandemic, it would be a sensational joke to miss out on a summer season that is expected to recover strongly due to the absence of workers,” said Vittorio Messina, president of the Assoturismo Confesercenti tourist association.

Different political factions disagree as to exactly what (and who) is to blame for the lack of interest from applicants.

READ ALSO: Travel in Italy and Covid rules this summer: what to expect

Italy’s tourism minister Massimo Garavaglia, a member of the right wing League party, has singled out the reddito di cittadinanza, or ‘citizen’s income’ social security benefit introduced by the populist Five Star Movement in 2019 for making unemployment preferable to insecure, underpaid seasonal work.

Bernabò Bocca, the president of the hoteliers association Federalberghi, agrees with him – along with large numbers of small business owners.

“What’s going to make an unemployed person come to me for 1,300 euros a month if he can stay sprawled on the beach and live off the damned citizenship income?” complained an anonymous restauranteur interviewed by the Corriere della Sera news daily.

“Before Covid, I had a stack of resumes this high on my desk in April. Now I’m forced to check emails every ten minutes hoping someone will come forward. Nothing like this had ever happened to me.” 

READ ALSO: MAP: The best Italian villages to visit this year

Italy is experiencing a dire shortage of workers this tourist season.
Italy is experiencing a dire shortage of workers this tourist season. Photo: Andrea Pattaro / AFP.

Five Star MPs, however, argue that the focus on the unemployment benefit is a distraction from the real issues of job insecurity and irregular contracts.

There appears to be some merit to that theory. A recent survey of 1,650 seasonal workers found that only 3 percent of the people who didn’t work in the 2021 tourist season opted out due to the reddito di cittadinza.

In fact the majority (75 percent) of respondents who ended up not working over the 2021 season said they had searched for jobs but couldn’t find any openings because the Covid situation had made it too uncertain for companies to hire in advance.

READ ALSO: MAP: Which regions of Italy have the most Blue Flag beaches?

Others said the most of jobs that were advertised were only for a 2-3 month duration, half the length of the season (again, due to Covid uncertainty), making it not worth their while to relocate.

Giancarlo Banchieri, a hotelier who is also president of the Confesercenti business federation, agrees that Covid has been the main factor in pushing workers away from the industry, highlighting “the sense of precariousness that this job has taken on in the last two years: many people have abandoned it for fear of the uncertainty of a sector that has experienced a terrible time.”

The instability brought about by two years of Covid restrictions has pushed many workers away from the tourism sector.
The instability brought about by two years of Covid restrictions has pushed many workers away from the tourism sector. Photo: Andrea Pattaro / AFP.

“I said goodbye to at least seven employees, and none of them are sitting at home on the citizen’s income,” Banchieri told Repubblica. “They have all reinvented themselves elsewhere; some are plumbers, others work in the municipality.”

READ ALSO: OPINION: Mass tourism is back in Italy – but the way we travel is changing

To counteract the problem, Garavaglia has proposed three measures: increasing the numbers of visas available for seasonal workers coming from abroad; allowing people to work in summer jobs while continuing to receive 50 percent of their citizen’s income; and reintroducing a voucher system that allows casual workers to receive the same kinds of welfare and social security benefits as those on more formal contracts.

Whether these will be enough to save Italy’s 2022 tourist season remains to be seen, but at this stage industry operators will take whatever fixes are offered.

“The sector is in such a dire situation that any common sense proposals much be welcomed,” the Federalberghi president Bocca told journalists.