There are too few graduates in Italy. Especially in the sectors relating to digital innovation, the real foundation of economic growth, in the so-called STEM world (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). And amongst those graduates, too many of them go abroad to look for new and better work and life opportunities. This is the scenario of the summary of recent research and statistics at a time when we are celebrating a better-than-expected economic growth rate (GDP up by 1.5% in 2017 and perhaps the same again in 2018, according to the most recent analyses by Bankitalia and the Confindustria Research Centre) but we nevertheless need to note that this is the lowest rate of growth among the major countries of the EU and it has not yet made any notable inroads into the heart of the problem of the social crisis: the lack of work and thus of a future for the young generations.

Let us look at some statistics. According to the annual OECD report “Education at a Glance 2017”, 30% of Italian graduates (in the groups between 25 and 64 years old, corresponding to the population of working age) have a diploma in humanistic disciplines, social sciences and information and only 24% in the STEM disciplines (compared with 35% in Germany, by contrast): there are too many lawyers, professors and media consultants, not enough engineers and mathematicians, too much traditional classical culture and not enough science, to summarise the situation. Certainly, as well as the statistics about the titles of the diplomas, we also need to discuss the contents of the courses and their quality. And it would also be well worthwhile remembering (as we have often done in this blog) that it is precisely the characteristics of the innovation under way that require, in particular, multi-disciplinary courses, “multi-technical” cultures, engineer-philosophers and humanists conscious of the enormous scientific value of the golden age of Humanism. It remains a fact that we have few engineers and we could use a lot more of them.

Here are some more statistics from the OECD Report: only 18% of Italians aged between 25 and 64 have a degree, compared with the OECD average of 37% (we trail in last); and if we examine the youngest generations, 25-34 years old, the divergence remains wide: 26% of graduates in Italy against 57% for the OECD average. Furthermore, we continue to invest too little in education: barely 4% of GDP, against the OECD average of 5.2%. If competitiveness is measured on the basis of human capital, we are not at all well-placed.

In the “Global Human Capital Report 2017” by the World Economic Forum, Italy is only in 35th place, given its low level of participation in the labour market, attributable particularly to the “gender gap” (there are very few women, even though the percentage has been increasing over the years and they are primarily concentrated within the graduates of the educational processes) and to the high level of youth unemployment, aggravated by the strong phenomenon of the “NEETs” (youngsters who neither study nor work, a regrettable top ranking for Italy in Europe: 19.9%, EU data, July 2017).

We could do a lot better, suggests the World Economic Forum, if we invested in order to improve the contributions of our human capital along the lines of what the most advanced economies are doing. This is another reason to return to the relationship between high-quality training, particularly in scientific subjects, and the opportunities for work and growth. And once again the OECD Report reminds us that the level of graduate employment in Italy varies from 71% for the “Arts” to 85% for “engineering, industrial manufacturing and construction”.

Adding to the imbalance between demand and supply, another factor which weighs on the Italian situation and slows down the processes of economic development (the economy is finally growing, after a decade of crisis, but very little) is the phenomenon of the “brain drain”: from 2008 until 2015 (according to an analysis by the Confindustria Research Centre/“IlSole24Ore” report of 15th September) 51% of the Italians who took up residence abroad were aged between 15 and 39 – 260,000 people. For the most part with highly rated qualifications. And thus at a very substantial cost for our country. Paying for the education of so many youngsters (calculated as ever by the Confindustria Research Centre) cost their families and the public purse 42.8 billion euros. In other words, nearly 43 billion of public and private investment in education which will benefit those countries in which our youngsters have gone to work and live. 43 billion “up in smoke” for the Italian economy. The worst thing is that this statistic is becoming ever more costly: 14 billion in 2015 alone. One point of GDP. The “brain drain” costs one point of GDP, of wealth, of growth. Everything leads us to think that in 2016 and 2017 the phenomenon will continue to show a similar alarming dimension.

What can be done? We need to invest in innovation. And in training. In further education colleges (with much greater focus on technical colleges) and in universities, by improving the quality of the courses and their relevance to the development of the digital world (not least in order to give our youngsters the critical knowledge and requisite competencies to understand and “manage” the transformations which are under way). And to continue to provide a stimulus for companies so that their investments in research, innovation and digital technologies forges ahead too. Competitiveness requires a fundamental stimulus in the form of human capital which knows not only how to deal with the challenges of innovation, but also how to define them, to anticipate them, to “get a handle” on them.

It is perhaps useful to re-read Keynes: “We are suffering from a new malaise… technological unemployment. A form of unemployment caused by the fact that we are discovering new methods to save labour at a pace which is faster than that at which we are discovering new ways to employ labour. But this is simply a temporary mis-alignment”. This was in 1930, when Keynes wrote a book which was a great success, “Possibilità economiche per i nostri nipoti” (Economic possibilities for our grandchildren). Today, almost ninety years later, it is worthwhile reflecting upon the even faster technological transformation currently under way and on the speed of change and its problems. The “temporary mis-alignment”, as Keynes, the economic commentator, knew very well, needs to be managed. Specifically, thanks to policies for innovation and labour.

In the current debate about the characteristics and the consequences of the digital economy, about the effects of “Industry 4.0”, differing opinions challenge each other, not just between economists, but also between hi-tech entrepreneurs: whether robots will destroy labour or stimulate new forms of labour, whether and how the Keynesian “re-alignment” can be achieved. One fact is certain: not innovating does not create work. Or, reversing the concept, “only innovation can create new jobs” (Luca De Biase, “IlSole24Ore, 20th August). Therefore, it is better to invest. The digital economy is not the promised land. But it should nevertheless be supported.

19/09/2017