MILAN, ITALY – In today’s economic downturn, one might think that every new job posting would instantly draw a hoard of applicants. Not so in Italy. Of the 94,600 jobs small Italian firms have offered so far this year, about a third have gone unfilled, according to a recent report by Confartigianato, the association of Italy’s family-owned businesses.
It appears that the shame of working a blue-collar job is so great that Italians would rather risk twiddling their thumbs than using them to tailor fine European clothing, whip up delicious cannoli, or tinker with sports cars. This cultural stigma, unmoved by the fact that some skilled laborers earn substantially more than white-collar workers, has become a real “curse” for the Italian economy, says Giacomo Vaciago, an economic policy professor at the Catholic University of Milan.
“Firms will always need these kind of workers,” he says, but very few young Italians are choosing such careers. “You can talk to the best mechanics in the Ferrari [car industry], and most of them will say their dream is to send their kids to college so that they can have a desk job ... even if this means they will earn less then their fathers.”
On average, a trained mechanic earns between €1,300 and €1,500 ($1,900 - $2,200) per month – much more than a school teacher (€1,200), who needs five years of college. Skilled workers also need some kind of formal education – usually a diploma from a professional institute, a high school oriented toward vocational professions. But such training has been neglected for a long time, says Mr. Vaciago, who recommends that the public education system invest in more professional institutes.
Far more than Gucci and gnocchi, industrial production fuels Italian economy
Although better known abroad for food and fashion, Italy’s economy still mostly relies on industrial production in highly specialized sectors, such as precision machinery, electrical goods, furniture, and motors – all of which require skilled labor.
According to the Confartigianato report, published last month, employers have a particularly hard time finding skilled manual workers, such as carpenters, plumbers, tailors, and mechanics. Hairdressers, pastry chefs and IT technicians are also in high demand.
Breaking the mold
Despite the longstanding resistance to such jobs, some say the culture is starting to change, perhaps thanks to the economic crisis.
Alessandro Mietner, a 32-year-old specialized mechanic from Castelletto Ticino, has five years of college education, but left his low-paying job in education to support his family.
“Three years ago, when they heard I left a white-collar job for this, people thought I was crazy,” says Mr. Mietner. “Now many understand my choice; some even realize that my job is more creative than answering the phone in an office.”