Skilled, educated and washing dishes: Italy squanders migrant talent

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Marilyn Nabor, an experienced high school mathematics teacher in the Philippines, moved to Italy 14 years ago with high hopes of honing her craft in the country of Galileo and Fibonacci.

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Now aged 49, she works as a housekeeper in Rome, counting cobwebs and crockery, and has abandoned hope of returning to her former calling. “This country does not recognize our diploma or curriculum from the Philippines,” she said. “I cannot get professional work.”

Even gaining qualifications in Italy didn’t help Abhishek, a 26-year-old migrant from India who got a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Turin's Polytechnic University last year.

Abhishek, who declined to give his surname, said he was rejected for a string of jobs because his rudimentary Italian was deemed inadequate. He has now found work as an engineer in the Netherlands, where he can get by with English.

Such stories bring home an uncomfortable truth: there are scant prospects in Italy for foreign-born workers, however qualified they are, due to a combination of factors including a strict cap on work permits and a high citizenship bar.

In contrast to much of the West, it’s rare to see migrants working as doctors, engineers, teachers or in any other skilled professions - raising red flags for a country with a chronically stagnant economy and an aging and rapidly shrinking population.

Last month the European Union’s statistics agency Eurostat said just over 67 percent of non-EU workers in Italy are over-qualified, meaning that they are stuck in medium- or low-skilled jobs despite having university-level education.

That compared with an EU average of about 40 percent. Only Greece did worse in the 27-member bloc, while France and Germany were between 30-35 percent.

Italy, which is also contending with an exodus of skilled nationals to stronger economies, needs qualified immigrants to fill growing skilled labor shortages, many economists say.

Unlike in much of northern Europe, English is not widely used in the workplace, despite being a global lingua franca.

The great majority of the country’s 5 million foreign residents are unemployed or have low-skilled jobs as domestic workers, in hotels, restaurants, factories, construction or as small shopkeepers, labor ministry data shows.

Decades-long stagnation

Italian gross domestic product has barely grown since the start of the century, after adjustment for inflation, and its labor productivity rose by just 0.4 percent per year between 1995 and 2021, less than a third of the EU average, Eurostat data shows.

For decades, Italian governments have failed to harness the skills of migrants and integrate them into the workforce, instead treating their arrival as a cause for alarm, said Filippo Barbera, sociology professor at Turin University.

This month, the government of right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni announced a “state of emergency” on immigration following a sharp rise in flows across the Mediterranean.

Meloni, who has drafted tougher asylum rules since taking office six months ago, has also said she will increase channels for legal migration, though no concrete steps have been taken.

The prime minister’s office and the labor ministry declined to comment for this article.

Meloni rejects the idea that more migrant workers are the answer to Italy’s economic problems.

“Before we talk about immigration we should work on the possibility of involving many more women in the labor market and increasing the birth rate, these are the priorities,” she told reporters last week.

In 2023, work permits will be granted to around 83,000 non-EU migrants, according to government data, less than a third of the 277,000 who applied for them.

More than half the permits handed out will be for temporary, seasonal jobs and most of the rest for unskilled work such as factory labor, with only 1,000 spots for high-skilled workers with qualifications in their countries of origin.

Many of those that do arrive are dismayed to find that having their qualifications recognized by employers is often a complicated, drawn-out affair. Most professional guilds are only open to Italian citizens, and have rigid requirements based on academic record, work experience or entrance exam.

Gustavo Garcia, a 39-year-old Venezuelan sociologist, has been in Italy for four years doing jobs such as food delivery, house painting and gardening.

His five-year master’s degree in sociology obtained in Venezuela was demoted to a basic three-year Italian degree, and he is now studying at Padua University to make up for lost time.

“I am forced to redo a master’s degree because I want to do a doctorate,” he said. “Italian bureaucracy is very complex and difficult to interpret.”

Italian births at historic low

Migrants could buffer the country’s shrinking population and workforce - births last year were the fewest since the country’s unification in 1861 - and could also help its fragile public finances, the Bank of Italy and many economists say.

The Treasury calculates that a 33 percent increase in migrants would reduce Rome’s massive debt as a proportion of gross domestic product by more than 30 percentage points by 2070 compared to a baseline scenario.

Rome’s debt-to-GDP ratio stood at 144 percent at the end of last year, the second highest in the euro zone after Greece’s.

For non-EU migrants committed to forging a life in Italy, the road to citizenship is longer and tougher than most Western European nations, requiring them to be at least 18 and a legal resident in the country for 10 years before they can apply.

Oussama, a 32-year-old Moroccan who moved to Italy as a teenager, has won Italian citizenship and graduated in chemical engineering in Turin last year - though even this apparent success story still hasn’t had a happy ending.

Instead, he has labored through six months of failed job applications and menial work since gaining his master’s degree.

“I took all sorts of jobs. I worked at the market, handed out advertising, and I wouldn’t mind doing it again to feed my family,” said Oussama, who is married with two children and is now on an internship with a company that develops workplace health and safety systems.

Barbera at Turin University said the lack of migrants in skilled professions has become entrenched and hard to reverse.

“Migrants in Italy have virtually no access to the middle class,” he said. “It is partly self-fulfilling. People are used to seeing them in menial jobs so it becomes perceived as their natural place.”

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