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Better the kitchen than the factory, say Italian youth. How to promote manufacturing in Italy?

Better to be a cook than a factory technician; better a hotel clerk than a machinery repairman. Maybe it’s because of shows like MasterChef, Ready Steady Cook (and its Italian-language edition, La prova del cuoco), or the Italian cooking show Cuochi e fiamme (literally: “Cooks and flames”), but the majority of Italian youth entering secondary school are showing a preference for cooking over manufacturing. A Condiretti study has shown that, for the 2013-2014 school year, a total of 46,600 students have enrolled in vocational secondary schools in the fields of gastronomy and hotel management, and 13,400 have enrolled in agricultural schools. At the same time, just 21,500 students have chosen to enrol in vocational schools specialised in manufacturing, maintenance or technical assistance. That’s more than two chefs to every factory worker.

This could be seen as good news. Young people are beginning to understand better the connection between their education and job prospects and are focusing on an industry in which Italian tradition is still going strong, i.e. cooking, good food, a strong agricultural industry and tourism, all of which require some good, strong professional skills. But looking at the numbers, we also see some disturbing details: the younger generations continue to be critical of – if not downright hostile towards – the world of manufacturing and industry, a world on which a large part of Italy’s GDP (roughly 17%) is based and which is being seen as a launching pad for the future in a time in which the EU is promoting the central importance of manufacturing as a cornerstone to growth (including plans and other measures to bring manufacturing to 20% of GDP by 2020, up from the current average of 15%), the US is focusing on its “manufacturing renaissance”, and the UK and France are investing to boost their own manufacturing industries – not to mention Germany, Europe’s leading nation in terms of manufacturing. Italy comes in second in this ranking for manufacturing thanks, above all, to all the mid-sized businesses that are exporting and innovating. But young people are still not particularly interested in this. Unfortunately.

The trend is not new. In a study conducted in 2009 by Nando Pagnoncelli and the IPSOS in conjunction with the book Orgoglio industriale (Industrial Pride, published in Italy by Mondadori), the focus groups concerning the opinion young people have of manufacturing showed that most of those surveyed said that they would prefer to work in a call centre than in a factory, or be a store clerk for Armani than be a secretary in the offices of a small-scale manufacturer. The following year, the same study, updated for Assolombarda, came to the same conclusion. Now, the Coldiretti data has again confirmed this trend in the hospitality industry, as well as in agriculture (based on recent data the importance of which is not to be underestimated), with a focus on managing this industry with the sort of technical skills that can bring innovation to an ancient farming culture. The boom in farmhouses and farm tourism, driven in part by organic farming (and the ability to sell produce online), and the renewed popularity of the Italian countryside is confirmation of this trend.

So it’s a complex phenomenon to be looked at carefully. Good food and a rebirth of the hotel industry blend well with the revitalisation of modern agriculture and, above all, with the growth of agriculture as a modern industry and the rebirth of the Italian food and beverage industry. This shift is also the focus of attention of agriculture and industrial policy both in Italy and the EU (with the protection of quality produce and trademarks being a key aspect) and necessarily has traits of good culture of enterprise – in the name of quality.

But manufacturing must not be ignored, even if it may appear to be no longer in fashion, because that is what represents the core of growth in Italy and the country’s positioning internationally. But it does need to be better developed, including in terms of culture and of investment in the central importance of manufacturing, including promoting a culture that speaks to entrepreneurship and the importance of making and of doing good, to the “culture of machines” and “industrial humanism”, to the factory and to modernity. If chefs are becoming all the rage on TV, then it’s up to manufacturing to tell a convincing story of itself whether it be on TV, the Internet or other mainstream media. One interesting initiative in that regard was the Rai Uno miniseries (an idea of Luca Barbareschi) dedicated to Adriano Olivetti and his dream of factories as communities of production and culture, and let’s hope that it’s not an isolated example. An Italy of factories and of quality craftsmanship, of good food and sustainable agriculture, still has much to say and must seek to be better understood and loved. Especially by our youth.