As competitiveness in Italy falters, there are two numbers on which we should reflect: the ratios of investments in education and research to GDP, both of which are below European averages. This has serious consequences both for the Italian economy as a whole and for Italian businesses specifically, as they are forced to combat international competition in an environment in which human capital and ‘innovation capital’ are playing increasingly important roles. Here are the numbers: for education, we are spending just 4.7% of GDP, as compared to an average of 6.3% for all OECD countries; for research, a paltry 1%. Looking more closely at the OECD figures, we see that Italy has slipped to next-to-last place (31st out of 32 countries) in education spending at just 9% of total public investment, compared to the OECD average of 13%. University graduates are on the rise at 15% of the population, but this is just half of the OECD average (of 31%). If look at the 25-34 age range specifically, the generation which is now entering the workforce and becoming a part of the human capital that will be faced with the coming challenges of growth, university graduates account for just 21% of the population, compared to 39% on average for the OECD. Above all, we are lacking the skills most sought after by businesses, i.e. the engineering, economics and science degrees (not to mention the fact that many of the best and brightest take their talents abroad to find better work and living conditions). Italy is also lacking in degrees in the humanities, which could be of interest both in industry and in the service sector (in-house counsel, sociologists in tune with changes in the workplace, philosophers able to decrypt the complexity of social processes, changes in the marketplace, and the expectations of consumers and manufacturers). They are numbers that point to shortfalls in education both in quantitative and qualitative terms (although there are many important exceptions).
Things are a bit better when it comes to the female population, with women continuing to make inroads. In 2012, one out of four women had a university degree (59%), as compared to one out of six for the men, and this is in line with the OECD average. Italy is also in second place in the number of women with science degrees (52%) and has one of the highest percentages of engineering degrees in the OECD (33%), which is a direction to pursue with greater conviction and one where significant progress is already being made within the leading Italian universities. At the Milan Polytechnic, for example, female graduates accounted for 20.6% of all graduating students in 2008, and today they’ve reached 23.9%.
A recent headline in La Stampa (27 September) read “More technology and more women for the recovery” for an article about the meeting between Fiat chairman John Elkann, the managing director of Luxottica, Andrea Guerra, and a group of female researchers and managers, from the newly elected senator Elena Cattaneo to several female engineers from Pirelli, Telecom, the Milan Polytechnic and so on, all brought together by the association “Valore D” (which promotes female leadership in business). The Italian Education Minister, Maria Chiara Carrozza, pointed to the importance of this and to the outlook for the future, saying, “Italy’s decline is not irreversible, and taking care of the contribution of women is the first step to take on the road forward.”
What is needed is more education, greater public and private-sector investment in research and development, greater attention to rewarding talent, beginning with the contribution of women – the engineers we spoke of earlier, but also, of course, of anyone able to provide her own unique contribution within her own context to education and training, attitudes and a capacity to translate that “intelligence of the heart” that is so innately female in whole new ways – all of which will have a positive impact on business and on the number of women who choose a career in the world of science and within organisations with a keen eye for new technologies and for innovation in general. In fact, 66% of women find a job within a year of receiving an engineering degree, and 91% are employed within five years. So it’s a path that we should continue to pursue.