Sunday, July 21, 2024

Analysis-Italian firms bridge skills gap with own schooling

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By Giulia Segreti

ROME (Reuters) – After years of informal work as a farm labourer, Federico Olivieri, 29, could not believe it when a huge building site appeared next to his home in Sicily with training on offer for the numerous specialised jobs required.

The programme by Italy’s largest construction group Webuild is among a growing number of ‘academies’ run and financed by companies frustrated by many job-seekers lacking the know-how.

“We are being proactive about the problem. If the skills aren’t there, then we will create them ourselves,” Webuild’s Chief HR, Organization & Systems Officer Gianluca Grondona told Reuters of the group’s programme, which it launched in November.

Skill mismatches are an international problem but for Italy, with the lowest employment rate in the EU and productivity that has stagnated for more than two decades, it is acute.

Despite a large pool of people seeking work or outside the labour market, vacancy rates stood at 2.5% in the first quarter of 2024, in line with the EU average, data from European Union statistics agency Eurostat shows. This compares with 2.8% in France and 0.9% in Spain in the same period.

Vocational schools and colleges are fewer and less popular in Italy than in most European countries, think-tank Prometeia highlighted in a June report, and even those that there are fail to produce students with the right expertise.

At the same time, too many young people are still studying subjects with lower market demand, such as humanities, it said.

The problem has become more severe with the rapid development of new technologies, as Rome invests in European-Union-backed infrastructure projects as part of its post-COVID recovery plan, worth about 200 billion euros ($214 billion).

Big firms like Webuild, shipbuilder Fincantieri, and state railway group Ferrovie dello Stato (FS) are taking matters into their own hands.

On top of its apprenticeships, FS liaises with universities and schools to offer students more targeted courses.

“As the company changes, skills change and we need specific capabilities, particularly when it comes to digital and artificial intelligence-based jobs,” said Adriano Mureddu, its Chief Human Resources Officer.


Olivieri, who trained as an agronomist, was frustrated by a succession of temporary, underpaid contracts in a Sicilian agricultural sector undercut by cheap imports of citrus fruit.

He joined Webuild’s programme this year and now works with tunnel-boring machines at its site on Sicily’s eastern coast.

“The courses are an incredible opportunity for those who are willing to learn something new … you can’t miss a chance like this,” he said.

Webuild aims to source from its work academies some 3,000 people out of 10,000 new hires it envisages over the next three years. The academies are close to its infrastructure work sites, mainly in southern regions where unemployment is high.

Lorenzo Esposito Corcione, a 19-year-old who studied at nautical school in Genoa, is one of 80 people hired by Fincantieri after being trained under its ‘Masters of the Sea’ programme launched eight months ago. The programme drew 17,000 applicants.

“Without the course I wouldn’t be here,” Esposito Corcione told Reuters at the end of his shift as an electrics fitter in the shipyard of the north-eastern port of Monfalcone.

“There is a world of difference between what I studied in school and what is actually being done here in the yard.”


Italy faces a problem not only of skills but also of numbers. It has one of the world’s oldest populations and lowest fertility rates at 1.2 children per woman and meanwhile, the baby-boomers of the 1960s are now retiring.

This means in the next five years Italy will need 3.1 to 3.6 million new workers, business group Unioncamere estimates.

By 2050, Italy will have almost 5 million fewer people, and more than a third of them will be over 65, national statistics office ISTAT predicts. Younger blood is badly needed in a host of industries, from construction and tourism to agriculture.

Despite its anti-immigration rhetoric, Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing government last year quietly raised quotas for work visas for non-EU citizens to 452,000 for the period 2023-2025, an increase of nearly 150% from the previous three years.

Italy has attracted workers from elsewhere in the EU, despite its wages being relatively low, but this has not helped resolve its skills mismatch.

For now, the academies and training offered by big firms are alleviating the problem, providing priceless opportunities to people like Pasquale Infante, 28, who has just starting work as a pipe fitter at Fincantieri’s Marghera plant near Venice.

“These programmes are good for workers and good for companies … they are teaching people the skills they need,” he said.

($1 = 0.9351 euros)

(Editing by Gavin Jones and Alexander Smith)

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