Italy is stuck in a European brain drain

Fewer and fewer young people, fewer and fewer graduates. Thirteen of Italy's twenty-one regions are not only in demographic decline, they are also struggling to get the remaining young people through third-level education. And it is not just the South that is struggling.

Published On: March 14th, 2023

In the map of all European regions drawn up by the European Commission DG for Regional and Urban Policy on the basis of four indicators (net immigration of young people, changes in the number of college graduates, the number of working-age graduates and the working-age population), Piedmont, Liguria and Valle d’Aosta in the northwest, and Friuli Venezia Giulia in the northeast stand out, as well as Marche, Umbria and Abruzzo in the centre of the country.

They are joined by six of the seven regions that fall among the “least developed” regions by European standards: Sardinia, Sicily, Calabria, Apulia, Basilicata and Molise. The exception is Campania, which suffers less than the others from such phenomena and has higher percentages of graduates. The situation is still precarious, however, as it is for 35 other regions in the rest of the Union.

Those who value national pride would do well to avoid widening their focus to other regions of the Union. Almost the entirety of Romania and Bulgaria, as well as much of Hungary and Croatia, find themselves in the same situation. All In all, 46 regions are stuck in what Brussels has termed the “talent development trap”.

All of these territories are grappling with an accelerating decline in the working-age population, accompanied by very low numbers of college graduates, which have stagnated between 2015 and 2020. Only three regions in France (Champagne-Ardenne, Lorraine and Haute-Normandie), four in eastern Germany, one in Portugal, and none in Spain, are facing the same predicament.

In cross-country comparisons, Italy ranks just above Romania with less than 20 percent of 25-64 year-olds with degrees, compared to 18.78 percent in Romania. Meanwhile this figure is 50.8 percent in Ireland, 40 percent in France and Spain, and 30 percent in Portugal and Germany. Outside the EU, the two extremes are represented by Canada (62 percent) and Mexico (18 percent).

Sicily and Calabria at the bottom, but Lombardy has little to celebrate

In Italy, the last place is held by Sicily, where between 2015 and 2019 the migration balance for 15 to 39 year-olds was negative on average each year by 11.5 per thousand residents. In 2020 only 14.9 percent of people aged 25 to 64 were college graduates, with an average increase over the previous five years by just 1.7 percent. Here the region performs just a little better than Calabria, where the percentage of college graduates remained essentially static (+0.3). For both regions, the decline in the working population was around 10 percent.

Lombardy is by far the Italian region that attracts the most young people: the migration balance is +10.8 per thousand inhabitants. But the good news stops there. The region is losing its working population and its percentage of college graduates stops at 21.7 percent, below the worst performing region in Germany (Sachsen-Ahnalt).

A clear factor in the comparison with Germany is the wide availability in the latter country of vocational schools, similar to the Italian ITS (Higher Technical Institutes), which are much less widespread. Both institutions award a third-level degree. Performing better than Lombardy is Latium, where there are more graduates (27 percent), the numbers of which are growing at the rate of three percentage points a year, despite obvious demographic decline. Among the “trapped” regions, the presence of Piedmont, once the apex of the industrial triangle, and now in slow decline, is striking.

The economic implications

Projections suggest population decline will continue in Italy, along with all the Eastern European countries and Greece. In contrast, the population will increase in Denmark, Ireland, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta and Sweden. The number of inhabitants in Europe will grow, slightly, until 2029. Then the decline will affect the entire Union. The phenomenon is therefore long-term and far-reaching. It mainly affects rural areas. Immigration has yet to compensate for the decline in births and increased mortality.

The economic implications are significant, and not just the impact on the sustainability of public spending on pensions, health and welfare. “The lack of replacement of middle-aged workers having higher labour productivity may also create imbalances in the intergenerational transfers in the economy,” writes the Commission. Fewer young people in the workforce means less capacity for innovation and lower growth potential for businesses and the economy.

The measures proposed by the Commission to curb the brain drain

In light of the overall situation, in which Italy finds itself at a greater disadvantage than many others, the Commission’s DG of Regional Policy is trying to patch up the leaks with a plan to “boost talent,” the so-called Talent Booster Mechanism. It combines the following measures:

  • A pilot project launching this year to help regions train, attract, and keep skilled workers;
  • Support in helping the regions confront demographic transition;
  • Involvement of the Technical Support Instrument (the Commission’s directorate for helping member states design and implement reforms) to address declining working-age populations and skills shortages;
  • Direct assistance from cohesion policy programs to stimulate innovation and opportunities for the highly skilled;
  • A new Urban Initiative call for innovative city-led actions to cultivate talent.

The plan also includes measures to promote knowledge and share experiences from other cities, including data, so that regional and migration policies are supported by factual analysis.

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