The Pandemic Helped Reverse Italy’s Mind Drain. However Can It Final?

When Elena Parisi, an engineer, left Italy at age 22 to pursue a career in London five years ago, she joined the vast ranks of talented Italians escaping a sluggish job market and lack of opportunities at home to find work abroad.

But in the past year, as the coronavirus pandemic forced employees around the world to work from home, Ms. Parisi, like many of her compatriots, seized on the opportunity to really go home, to Italy.

In between Zoom meetings and her other work for a recycling company in London, she took long strolls on the beach near her family’s home in Palermo, Sicily, and talked recipes at dawn with vendors in the local market.

“The quality of life is a thousand, thousand times better here,” said Ms. Parisi, who is now in Rome.

The Italian government has welcomed the return of some of the country’s best and brightest as a silver lining to what has been a brutal pandemic for Italy, calling the shift a “great opportunity.” There is also a financial benefit, as Italians who spend more than six months in the country have to pay their taxes there.

Paola Pisano, Italy’s minister for technological innovation, said at a conference in October that Italy had a chance to benefit from the skills and innovations that returning Italians brought back with them.

She also said Italy needed to do its part to keep them there. For one thing, the country needs “a strong, diffuse, powerful and secure internet connection,” she said, so that those who had moved abroad “can return to their country and keep working for the company they worked for.”

One group of Italians started an association called Southworking to promote working remotely from Italy’s less developed south, in the hopes that returning professionals would dedicate their free time, and their money, to improving their hometowns.

“Their ideas, their volunteering, their creativity stay on the land where they live,” said Elena Militello, the association’s president, who returned to Sicily from Luxembourg.

To promote remote working, the association is creating a network of cities equipped with fast internet connections, an airport or train station nearby, and at least one co-working space or library with good Wi-Fi.

To map them, the association has received help from Carmelo Ignaccolo, a doctoral student in urbanism at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who returned home to Sicily after the coronavirus hit.

In recent months, Mr. Ignaccolo has overseen exams with the Mediterranean in the background of his Zoom screen, taught classes near his great-grandfather’s olive press and taken refuge from the heat by studying in a nearby Greek necropolis.

“I 100 percent embrace an American professional life,” he said, “but I have a very Mediterranean lifestyle.”

It’s not only Italy’s south that is benefiting from the reverse traffic.

Roberto Franzan, 26, a programmer who built a successful start-up in London before taking a job at Google there, returned to his home in Rome in March.

“You go to the bar and you can just strike up a conversation with pretty much whoever,” he said. “It has worked great for me.” He said that a number of interesting start-ups and tech companies were popping up in Italy and that he could imagine investing in the country.

“This moment has given us all the time to realize that getting back to your roots can be a good thing,” he said.

To really address the issue, he and others said, Italy needs to undertake deep structural and cultural reform that streamlines bureaucracy and improves transparency rather than relying on “people who come back home because the food is worse abroad and the weather is bad.”

Mr. Ignaccolo, the M.I.T. doctoral candidate, plans to return to the United States to pursue his academic career, and the new company Mr. Franzan, the programmer, is launching will be based in Delaware.

The downsides of working in Italy also worry Ms. Parisi, who is concerned that her professional advancement would be stymied in what she sees an Italian business world that has narrow scope for younger workers. She allowed that London’s lack of sun was bleak and British food was bad for her skin, but said that other things were important in life, too.

“I am young, I am a woman and I am in a very senior position,” she said, explaining that she would return to her job in London when her office reopened.

“It was a unique opportunity. I could both keep the job and live in Italy,” she said of her time working there. “But I always knew it was going to be temporary.”

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