Italian Dropout Rates Feed a Vicious Cycle

In Italy, soaring dropout rates and high unemployment feed young workers into the black market. Barbie Latza Nadeau reports on the crisis in Italian education.

09.06.12 8:45 AM ET

Giovanni, 16, smokes a rolled cigarette outside the fresh market in the middle-class Roman district of Testaccio on his break before heading back to work at his mother’s vegetable stand. He should be in the 11th grade this year, but he will not be going back to school because he needs to work at his family’s business instead. His father died two years ago, and since then his mother just can’t make ends meet, especially during a recession that has hit smaller family-run businesses particularly hard. She had to let her employees go over the summer, and Giovanni will now fill in the gap, effectively working for free. “I will go back to school some day,” he says.  “But I can’t let my family down now.”

Giovanni is one of 51,424 students who will not be returning to the classroom when public high schools and middle schools across Italy reconvene on Sept. 13. Dropout rates are skyrocketing across the country, and many students like Giovanni are dropping out to go to work, either to help support younger family members or to fill vacancies austerity measures have forced on family businesses. Italy’s dropout rate is the fourth highest in Europe at 18.8 percent, placing after Malta, Portugal, and Spain, and is growing at a much faster rate than the rest, according to figures from the last two years.   

“We need to take measures to stop this growing phenomenon,” says Maria Grazie Nardiello, head of Italy’s Department of Education. “The rate at which kids from the most vulnerable economically challenged families is alarming.”

The vast majority of those dropping out ahead of the 2012-13 academic year are from Italy’s poor regions of Calabria, Puglia, Campania, Basilicata and the southern island regions of the country.  In Sicily, the dropout rate is above 26 percent. In Sardinia, the rate is nearly 24 percent. The majority of dropouts are males who generally abandon their studies after middle school and before high school. Of this year’s dropouts, 17,421 are choosing not to come back after failing the previous year. The rest give no reason for choosing not to continue their education.

To combat the problem, the Italian government has set aside €100 million in European and national funds for programs that are intended to keep kids interested in staying in school. But it will take more than lofty programs to change the mentality that dropping out is a viable option. “I don’t see a major problem with ending school now,” says 16-year-old Gianluca, who is also dropping out of school to work on his father’s construction crew. “I can read and do math. I’ve got the basics down.”

Most dropouts do enter the workforce, but it is usually within the black market, which then feeds into a cycle that keeps the underprivileged vulnerable. In Calabria, nearly 30 percent of workers of all ages are employed without contracts or benefits, and in some sectors like domestic work, that figure is nearly doubled. To make matters worse, Italian research institute Eurispes estimated that in July, official unemployment for Italians aged 15–24 grew from 33.9 percent to 35.3 across the country in just three months. In the southern regions, that figure climbed to 48 percent, meaning even if dropouts wanted legitimate work, they would have an increasingly hard time finding it. 

Not surprisingly, high dropout rates are growing fastest in countries faced with the worst economic crises. In Portugal and Spain, the dropout rate hovers around 30 percent, with most erstwhile students directly recruited by companies needing unskilled laborers. A move in 2010 to curtail the growing rate in Portugal by counter-recruiting kids to get them to finish high school was scrapped after the country hit an economic crisis and the program was slashed in austerity budget cuts. Similar programs in Spain have been sidelined as the country struggles with its own debilitating economic situation. In Italy, the program to keep kids in school may face similar obstacles, worries Nardiello, who says education should be a priority. “These programs work, but they have to have funds to keep them going,” she says. “Otherwise you are just giving up on a whole generation.”