ROME - After working as an unpaid intern for 18 months in Italy, Massimo Fantini decided to try his chances abroad. Within five years he had a good job in a major multinational, had bought a house and had got married.
"If I had stayed in Italy, none of this would have been possible," said Fantini, speaking by telephone from New York.
"When I talk to my friends who stayed behind, I can hear their frustration. They are losing their energy and their dreams. That is the worst thing you can do to someone," added the 34-year-old accountant.
Fantini is one of a growing number of highly qualified young Italians who feel forced to take their skills elsewhere because of the economic turmoil, bureaucratic red tape and deep-seated cultural constraints that weigh on their ageing country.
The problem has become so acute that the Italian parliament has passed legislation trying to entice the emigrants to return, but newly installed Prime Minister Mario Monti will have to go much further with the reforms if he hopes to halt the exodus.
Italy has a long tradition of emigration, with an estimated 25 million Italians searching work abroad between 1876-1970. Whereas in the past, it was mainly the unskilled and uneducated who packed their bags, now it is well-trained graduates.
Although there are no official statistics specifically on university leavers, Italian business lobby Confimpreseitalia estimated in a recent report that 120,000 young Italians moved abroad in 2008/09, 70 percent of whom were graduates.
Sergio Nava, a journalist who has written a book and blog tracking what he terms the "la fuga dei talenti" (the flight of the talented), believes the economic crisis that has engulfed Italy in recent months has only made matters worse.
"Italy is a country dominated by old men. They give work to people they know and trust, rather than to those with the best qualifications. It is a nightmare for young people," he said.
"This is bringing Italy to its knees," he added.
Not much work, even less pay
Italy has far fewer graduates than most EU countries, with just 19.8 percent of Italians aged between 30 and 34 holding a degree against an EU average of 33.6 percent, according to the European Union statistics office, Eurostat.
And yet, Italy had the highest number of jobless graduates for more than six months (58 percent), while average monthly pay for those lucky enough to find work was put at just 1,078 euros ($1,535) in 2009 by AlmaLaurea, a higher education jobs service.
By contrast, the average starting salary for graduates in the United States that year was $4,042 and $2,800 in Britain.
To make matter worse, Italian firms invariably offer graduates a string of short-term, or "precarious" contracts, reserving the perks and job protection for older workers.
The lack of work, low pay and shaky contracts means that nearly a third of Italians in their early 30s still live at home with mamma and papa -- a figure that has tripled since 1983 and forced people to delay starting families.
"If I went back to Italy I would have to give up most of my independence," said Fantini, who co-founded an association to help other Italian professionals moving to New York.
"Do our leaders, who are all in their 60s or older, understand that? Can they put themselves in our shoes?"
Monti, 68, was sworn into office on Nov. 16 by Italy's 86-year-old president, Giorgio Napolitano. The average age of his cabinet of technocrats, tasked with digging the country out of a gathering debt crisis, is 63.
Calling the young one of Italy's "great wasted resources", Monti promised to free up the economy and reform closed-door guilds - 28 professional bodies that guard their long-standing privileges ferociously, making it hard for bright youngsters to get ahead in a broad range of jobs.
Attacking the cartels
Various governments have tried to take on these wealthy lobbies in the past and have almost always failed, to the despair of graduates who complain that the cartels foster rampant nepotism while strangling competition in key sectors.
"Some great talent is leaving Italy because of its medieval approach to hiring people. It is not what you have done, but who you know, or who you have slept with," said Alessandro Capata, a Rome academic actively seeking work abroad.
"If you want to work in a supermarket you can find a job. But if you want to be an architect, a dentist or a journalist then you will really struggle. It is a feudal system."
Berlusconi had promised to tackle the problem, but Stefano Saglia, the undersecretary for economic development in his administration, acknowledged that little headway was made.
"Certainly someone needs to have the courage to carry out a reform," he told Reuters. "Politicians are always frightened of protest ... but perhaps a government of technocrats will have more success because they aren't running after every vote."
Saglia co-sponsored a rare cross-party bill in 2010 which offered tax breaks to Italians under 40 who were living abroad to try and lure them home. There is no sign that the measure is having an impact, and all the while Italy is losing out.
A study by the Italian Competition Institute estimates Italy lost four billion euros over the past 20 years in terms of revenues from patents that expatriate Italian scientists filed abroad. The Confimpreseitalia business group estimates that Italy's brain drain had cost the country 5.9 billion euros.
While graduate emigration is not unique to Italy, the Organisation for Economic Coordination and Development, says very few educated foreigners want to come here, despite the fine weather and great food. In a 2001 survey, it said that only 57,515 graduates from OECD countries worked in Italy, while 395,229 Italians with tertiary education had moved abroad.
However, Nava, who has a weekly show on Radio 24 where he interviews Italian expatriates, is convinced that the flows could be reversed, if the government acted decisively.
"Many of the people I talk to want to come back. They see that the country is in great difficulty and that there isn't much time to sort things out. But before they return, Italy will have to become a more attractive place to live," he said.