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Family ties: why nepotism is bad for Italy

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Nepotism is rife in Italian society. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
16:39 CET+01:00
For many Italians, family comes first. But it is the common practice of nepotism – giving jobs to family members – that is driving young talent away.

Simona Bruno is set to graduate next year as an architect from a university in the northern Italian city of Turin.

She knows competition for work will be fierce, especially in a sector where the economic downturn has put a dampener on new projects.

But her bigger challenge will be getting hired - even as an unpaid intern - in an industry to which she has no family ties.

“For sure, if you know someone in the company you apply to then there’s more chance of being hired,” she tells The Local.

“Sometimes you hear of people actually getting a job on merit, but more often than not, being related to someone in the company or being the friend of the boss’s daughter is more valid than having a good CV. The recruitment process is rarely be open to all.”

As much as she would like to stay in Italy, it’s the kind of practice that might encourage her to join thousands of other young Italians in the exodus abroad, she says.

Tackling Italy’s high unemployment - which has doubled to more than 40 percent since the onset of the financial crisis – was a “nightmare” for former prime minister Enrico Letta, or so he once said during less than a year in office.

Matteo Renzi, who earlier this week was given the green light to become the country’s next leader, has pledged to make finding jobs for Italy’s “lost generation” a priority.

He said the most pressing emergency which concerns his generation and others, "is the emergency of labour, unemployment and of despair”.

It’s an issue many aspiring leaders promise to solve.

But in Italy’s case, it will take more than bold words to shake off a centuries-old tradition that keeps many from ever being given a chance.

The family ethos runs deep in Italian business, whether it be the Ferrero chocolate dynasty or a family-owned grocer, so it comes as no surprise that nepotism is prevalent, Roberto Perotti, an economics professor at Bocconi University in Milan, tells The Local.

The problem is embedded in cultural attitudes, he adds, and is something the country needs to work on changing if it wants to find a way out of the economic doldrums, and stymie the “brain drain”.

“There is an issue of trust in Italian society, and a ‘clan’ mentality – people don’t trust people they don’t know,” says Perotti.

Nepotism and cronyism tends to exist more in public companies and institutions. Take for example Rome's public transport company, Atac, which in 2010 was exposed for hiring more than 850 friends and relatives of senior directors – including a lap dancer.

Perotti also wrote about the topic in his book, The Rigged University, in which he revealed that in some of Italy’s state university departments, “30 percent of the staff have a close relative present”.

He blamed the family fiefdoms for the declining standard of Italy’s universities and while the problem might not be so bad in private companies, it is significant enough to drive some of Italy’s brightest talent away.

“If you’re looking for work, you have to have contacts, and most of the time this is more important than merit,” he says.

“It is something that holds people back and is a problem for the economy as it’s losing the brightest people.”

Mike Dollard, an American businessman in Veneto, has also been privy to nepotism in his dealings with Italian business and tells The Local “it’s absolutely ingrained in society” and that “the country is paying the price because of it”.

He referred to a meeting he attended last November as part of an initiative to revive the once-booming region’s economy.

“Ideas for new businesses were presented by young people, with the winner receiving funding to get the business off the ground,” he says.

“But from what I could see, almost all involved were sons of well-to-do businessmen...there were very few real go-getters there, but plenty of parents and politicians who wanted to be seen as great benefactors to Italy’s youth.”

At just 39 years old, Renzi is set to become Italy's youngest ever prime minister. His youthfulness resonates with Bruno and her friends in Turin, she says, and is a refreshing change from the “old guard”.

Renzi's rise to power has been achieved largely without recourse to family ties, although his father was a local Christian Democrat politician. But Bruno is so far unconvinced that he’ll manage to change cultural attitudes.

“It will always be difficult to find work in Italy because of this,” she says.

“Besides, even if you do know someone within a company, the pay is still bad or you aren’t paid at all. For my friends and I at least, given the chance, we’d he happy to work for free.”

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