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Reversed ‘brain drain?’: The Italians moving back to Italy amid the pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has prompted many Italians who have built careers in the US to move back home. But, facing considerable difficulties in returning, do they really represent a reversal of the long-term trend for Italy's graduates to move abroad?

People walk in central Milan.
After being separated from loved ones during the pandemic, many people are now planning a move. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

For Caterina Tiozzo, the United States is the land of opportunities, but Italy is the place where she dreams of returning.

An neonatologist at New York-based medical center NYU Langone Health, originally from Venice, Tiozzo has spent the last 16 years in the US building a career. Then came the pandemic. 

“I still remember my boss urging us to write a will,” Tiozzo said. “If something had happened to me, I would have been alone.”  That was when she decided that moving back to Italy would be her next goal. 

“I like the American way of working,” she said. “But I have saved so many American lives. Now, I would love to help my fellow Italian citizens.” 

READ ALSO: Physics Nobel belies Italy’s scientific brain drain

Tiozzo is among a growing number of Italian expatriates that, after going through the Covid-19 pandemic thousands of miles away from their families, are considering moving back to Italy. 

A recent survey by Italian organizations Talents in Motion and Fondazione con il Sud (Foundation with the south) found that 71 percent of participants were thinking about a return even before the Covid-19 crisis. However, for one out of five, the pandemic has reinforced their desire to move back. For 82 percent, the prospect of being reunited with family is a decisive motivating factor.

“Because of the Covid-19 travel restrictions, my fiancé and I haven’t been able to see our families for two years,” said Rosa Sottile, a postdoctoral researcher at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. 

‘In Italy I would be a precarious worker for life’

Sottile, who has spent the last ten years abroad, described the pandemic’s first months as one of the most stressful times in her life. “My 92-year-old grandmother got sick. We were so worried,” she said. “Luckily, she survived.” 

Those months spent in isolation in a foreign country pushed Sottile and her fiancé to reassess their life priorities. “We need to nourish our lifelong friendships,” she said. “The pandemic made us realize, in a much shorter time, the values that are most important to us.” 

The couple is moving to Milan in a few months, where Sottile’s partner has a job lined up. The postdoctoral researcher, who is embarking on her first job search in Italy, said she is looking forward to returning to her home country although her career prospects are a cause for concern. 

“The job side of this move scares me a lot,” she said, “but I hope that my experience abroad will help me.”

For sure, she said, “I will not continue my career in the academic field. While opportunities do exist, I would be a precarious worker for life.” 

READ ALSO: ‘It’s crazy’: What to expect when you work for an Italian company

Greta Cristini is an Italian lawyer who has spent most of her adult life abroad. She was working for a prestigious Big Law firm in New York when the pandemic prompted her to reassess her professional ambitions. “Despite a good salary, my job was no longer challenging me on an intellectual level,” she said. 

Determined to find out what her home country could offer her, she quit her job and, in October 2021, moved to Rome, where she is transitioning to a new career in geopolitical analysis. 

“I’ve experienced the job market only in New York. I am aware that in Italy it will be harder,” she said. 

Emigration ‘in decline for first time in two decades’

With many Italian professionals who live abroad now considering a move back home, there are hopes that this trend could reverse the so-called ‘brain drain’ (the emigration of highly trained people) believed to have cost Italy’s economy dearly over the years.

Official data offer a somewhat ambivalent insight into the trend. In 2020, 43,229 Italians moved their permanent residence back to Italy, according to figures analyzed by researcher Antonio Ricci, vice-president of Italian research center IDOS. 

Because some of those who left the country did not officially move their residence abroad in the first place, this number is likely to underestimate the phenomenon. However, it saw just a slight increase compared to the official number of expatriates — approximately 42,000 — who returned to Italy in 2019. 

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Moreover, the pandemic did not stop a significant number of Italians from saying farewell to their country. 112,218 left the country in 2020.

“This number is in decline for the first time in two decades, with an eight percent decrease compared with 2019,” said Ricci, who recently wrote a paper on the subject included in the 2021 Statistical Report on Immigration, an annual study on migration trends in Italy curated by IDOS researchers. “But it is still relevant.” 

In other words, while Covid-19 appears to have slowed down Italy’s ‘brain drain’, it is too early to conclude it is reversing the trend.

Between 2008 and 2020, at least 355,000 Italians between ages 25 and 34 left the country, while only 96,000 moved back. The balance between returnees and expatriates has been consistently negative over the years, amounting to an overall drain of 259,000 young people in 12 years – nearly 30 percent of whom have a college degree.

‘Leaving Italy is easier than coming back’

Italy’s stagnant job market is among what experts describe as the “push factors” that are encouraging people to leave.

According to Eurostat, in 2020 the unemployment rate between ages 25 and 29 in Italy was seven points above the European average. For women, finding a job is even harder: according to labour agency JobTech, in the first six months of 2021, 58 percent of those who were looking for jobs were women. 

Recent graduates in Italy are among the worst paid in Europe, according to consulting firm Mercer, and their employment rate is nearly 20 points below the EU average. 

“The reasons that lead expatriates to return collide with the obstacles they encounter in finding professional recognition in Italy,” said Ricci. 

Photo: GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP

As a result, the country loses talented people and resources. The percentage of Italian expatriates with a college degree in the 25-34 age group skyrocketed from 28 percent in 2012 to 39 percent in 2019. Meanwhile, the number of returnees among young graduates remained roughly stable.

“Leaving Italy is way easier than coming back,” said Tiozzo, the Italian neonatologist based in New York. Over the past 15 years, Tiozzo tried four times to move back to Italy and find a job worthy of her credentials – unsuccessfully.

Her last attempt was six years ago when she was offered an entry-level position, which she eventually turned down.

Tiozzo, who is now looking for new opportunities in Italy, is worried that even this time she will end up staying in the US “In Italy, the system is stagnant. For women, it is even harder,” she said. 

New opportunities for those returning?

On the other hand, the pandemic allowed some expatriates to return to Italy while working remotely for their foreign clients. Linda De Luca, an Italian translator and teacher who lived in New York for eight years, left the US in June 2021. 

“Although I don’t serve anymore as a medical interpreter in hospitals, I still work for many Italian and American clients from Italy. Because of the time difference, my workday is significantly longer,” she explained. 

De Luca’s choice to leave the US was accelerated by the pandemic. “When you see so many people die, you realize that you want to live more fully, closer to your family and friends, and see your nephews grow up,” she said.

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

International companies based in Italy may offer returnees another way home. Sottile, the postdoctoral researcher based in New York, plans to look for career opportunities in international biotech and pharmaceutical companies, which, she believes, are more likely to value her international experience. 

Italy’s 2021 budget law is facilitating such outcomes by extending tax benefits initially allocated only for returnees employed by resident companies to those who work for foreign ones too. 

“This is a Pyrrhic victory,” researcher Antonio Ricci said. “Although these people will spend money in Italy, the country will not benefit from their talents. We are surrendering to the fact we have nothing to offer to those who want to come back.” 

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Despite these dispiriting signs, Ricci ventured a bold hypothesis: that in the medium term, the pandemic might in fact help reverse the brain drain. 

“Over 100 years ago, after an earthquake took the lives of 200,000 people between the southern towns of Messina and Reggio Calabria, many Italian expatriates returned from the US to help rebuild their towns from scratch,” he explained.

According to the expert, the Covid-19 crisis may elicit a similar reaction. 

Ricci also sees Next Generation EU, the European initiative providing financial support to EU member states hit by Covid-19, as a historic opportunity. “If we manage to use those funds effectively, these returning brains could be decisive in reversing the trend.” 

However, it remains to be seen whether the choice of those who have returned or are about to do so will be sustainable in the long run. 

Cristini, the lawyer who moved to Rome, said living in her country’s capital is a new, exciting experience – but it is not a permanent decision yet. 

“I am keeping the option of leaving again open,” she said. “Just in case.” 

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MOVING TO ITALY

‘Why I ditched my UK corporate career for an abandoned Italian vineyard’

Many people dream of enjoying a slower pace of life in rural Italy after decades of the 9-5. But some make the leap much earlier. One former UK professional tells Silvia Marchetti how she swapped the London office grind for winemaking and never looked back.

‘Why I ditched my UK corporate career for an abandoned Italian vineyard’

At some point in life living the dream means abandoning one’s job, and this usually happens when people retire and think about what to do next. 

But one UK professional made the opposite choice: in her early 20s, she decided to ditch a promising career in the corporate and consultancy sector to move to deepest rural Italy and recover her ancestors’ long-lost vineyard. 

Scottish-Italian Sofia di Ciacca, with two degrees in law and history of art, worked for four years at KPMG in London and Edinburgh before she took the opportunity to do something different in life.

Her ancestors, who hailed from the tiny village of Picinisco in the province of Frosinone, Lazio, had migrated to Scotland decades ago. Every time she visited Italy as a child during the holidays, Sofia would feel the pull of her roots.

READ ALSO: ‘What we learned from moving to Italy and opening a B&B’

“I found myself presented with an opportunity very young, thanks to my family’s historical connection to the area, and thought: I either take time to build a career, or I can grab this chance,” she says.

“When you’re building a career, you already know what your trajectory will be: that you’ll be in an office here, and another office there. I realised I didn’t want that.”

At 23 she asked herself: why do later in life what I can do now? 

Sofia at work. Photo credit: Sofia Di Ciacca

This awareness took a while to develop, she says.

“As a child when I returned to Italy it was only as a holiday, not my day-to-day life. Imagine a young girl from Scotland, who had to learn about wine. I never thought about it when I was young.”

“Picinisco is so real, out of my comfort zone. That fascinated me”. 

Sofia, now 33, says she decided “to create something of value, that lasts in time and memory”.

Her family had started renovating old buildings in the area, and supported her career leap, but the wine business was something she was going to personally handle and dedicate years of sacrifice, study and hard work to building.

READ ALSO: ‘Do your homework’: An American’s guide to moving to Italy

Sofia had to learn from scratch, in a job that wasn’t quite like sitting in an office in front of a computer, and that required specific physical and social skills. 

She spent around four years studying the secrets of winemaking with Italian wine consultants in other parts of Italy, mainly on vineyards in Tuscany, where she learnt how to clean tanks, press grapes, plant vines, organise and run a canteen, and do the vendemmia (grape harvest). 

“I did traineeships, met experts, other international wine students, and all this helped me to grow,” she explains.

“The wine world is very complicated, you need to learn basic principles and engineering before you can even fathom how to start anything. Only once you learn, study, then you can have your own say, go see how local farmers work, understand how deep they plough the soil”.

Almost 10 years later, her winery now produces premium wines, honey and extra virgin olive oil. The wine is from an ancient grape variety grown in the area, called Maturano, of which production had been forsaken when local families migrated. 

She says it’s all a matter of gaining self-confidence built on hard graft, and it’s best to be honest and humble about things you don’t know, and are willing to be taught. Understanding the “rural respect for farmers” was key for her.

Sofia in the vineyard. Photo credit: Sofia Di Ciacca

One challenge was figuring out how to split her life between two countries: Scotland and Italy, and deciding where to locate the sales site, whether it was best to be in the cantina in Picinisco or marketing her products in Edinburgh. She says the balance is still not perfect.

But the toughest obstacle was tackling Italian bureaucracy. 

“I shed a lot of tears. The regulations hindered the business, like getting grants. You really need to follow the rules, understand the system, get the right people to advise you,” she says.

“But above all, stay honest. People will try to befriend you pretending to help, but it’s not worth it. As foreigners at the beginning you just don’t know how things work in Italy, you need to ask a lot of questions, and don’t be afraid to do that”. 

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Another feat was the practical side of wine-making itself, which requires a lot of physical work, from hand-picking the grapes in the organic vineyard to getting the winery in shape. 

“You need to get physically fit, and the machinery at first was really not for me,” Sofia says. 

“I wasn’t great at understanding how it worked but luckily I had the right people to teach me”. 

The first harvest came after years of tough vineyard revival. The six-hectare vineyard produces some 30,000 bottles a year, which have already won three international prizes. Alongside the premium white 100 percent Maturano wine, it also yields a sweet amber-coloured passito wine. 

Sofia with her children. Photo credit: Sofia Di Ciacca

“I’ve always been fascinated by grapes, passionate about how they turn into wine,” Sofia says. 

“Recovering the indigenous Maturano variety was a success, it grew well with the fertile soil and the climate. The grapes are left to do the talking, no yeasts are used.”

In the meantime, it’s become a family affair: Sofia got married – her husband, also Scottish-Italian, is a wine importer – and their two toddlers have now started taking part in the vendemmia.

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