Italy: The Job Hunt

The space in front of a corner news stand is filled with racks of colorful magazines and toys for children.

Expat publications can be a good place to start the job search. Photo © Steven Phraner/123rf.

While the thought of being your own boss in Italy may sound exciting, the reality is that most of the foreigners you run into here are working for someone else. They are often found teaching English, translating, designing web pages, working in marketing or public relations, consulting for a multinational, teaching at a university, writing for a newspaper or magazine, or working with a governmental organization.

Fortunately for those Anglophones without an illustrious career behind them already, the very act of speaking perfect English lends one a certain credibility. Italians may be suspicious of U.S. foreign policy and not particularly fond of U.S. food and fashion, but they do regularly defer to U.S. business sense.

When compared to European workers nursed on labor-friendly hiring laws, prospective North American employees have a leg up on the competition, as they come from a culture where efficiency is king and are accustomed to the kind of laissez-faire capitalism where hiring and firing are quick and easy processes.Also, employers admire the professional habits cultivated in the United States. When compared to European workers nursed on labor-friendly hiring laws, prospective North American employees have a leg up on the competition, as they come from a culture where efficiency is king and are accustomed to the kind of laissez-faire capitalism where hiring and firing are quick and easy processes.

Even the most venerated institutions of traditional Italian sectors often have a native English-speaker in their top brass. But unless you have outstanding contacts or credentials, or else were sent to Italy by your U.S. company, chances are that you will have to start the way most expats did: translating or teaching English while scouring the Help Wanted ads for something that fits your background more closely. (Then again, many people feel that they were cut out for teaching or translating and build it into a career.)

In Rome, a good place to start looking is an expat magazine called Wanted in Rome. It has classified ads for short-term or longterm apartment rentals and a list of jobs for native English-speakers. Its counterpart in Milan is Easy Milano.

The Monster board has an Italian site focused on an international crowd, while for Italians, the most popular venue is Corriere Lavoro.

A second possibility for those starting off is to go to a temp agency. The two best known in Italy are Adecco and Vedior, where candidates can upload their résumés and await a temporary assignment, which often turns into a full-time position. As lifetime contracts are on the wane in Italy, these stopgap measures have become more useful for employers. The disadvantage for foreigners, however, is that the employers are quite unlikely to undertake the hassle of getting you the necessary paperwork for what is supposed to be a short-term position.

The best bet is to spend the first few months making personal contacts while earning some money on the side. Fresh off the plane, young travelers can usually expect to find immediate employment at a bar, guiding tours, or working as a nanny, while those with some experience might land a job doing public relations, marketing, or web design for an international company.

The fashion industry is particularly fond of hiring internationals to work in showrooms, especially if they are young, attractive women: Remember that most Europeans do not see anything wrong with what North Americans might deem overt sexism and ageism. In a classified ad for a receptionist, for example, it is common practice in Italy to require that the applicant be “a friendly girl between the ages of 23 and 27.”


Landing a Job in Italy

A résumé in Italy includes the candidate’s gender, date of birth, marital status, and almost always a photo. They are longer than the average U.S. CV (two pages at least) and will include the type of high school attended and the score received at college graduation.

As the taste for things American grows in Italian business, a résumé that focuses on what the candidate accomplished at various jobs and internships will be viewed more favorably. But don’t expect a pure meritocracy: A personal contact will always beat an ace of a different suit.

When interviewing or sending a cover letter, be as respectful and professional as possible, as nothing turns off a prospective employer in Italy more than excessive informality. Needless to say, you should always use the lei form, and always address your interviewer as dottore or dottoressa, titles that assume they have graduated from college. Even for low-level and mid-level positions, the interview process will likely take a few weeks. Most of that time will be spent negotiating the salary and the type of contract that would be offered.

Because Italy is a land of small- and medium-sized family firms, pockets are not as deep as they are in big U.S. corporations. Coupled with the lower cost of living in Italy, somewhere near 80 percent of that in the United States, your salary will appear exceedingly slim at first. Pay for many professions is based on a national schedule known as the tabelle professionali. Entry-level workers will receive the minimum wage of that category, and unionized professionals can expect a raise every two years. Your salary will be paid by the month and will be accompanied by a receipt that outlines how much has been taken out for taxes, social security, health benefits, and any extra days off not granted in your contract.

Types of contracts are becoming more varied. Until the late 1990s, almost every fulltime contract at firms with more than 15 employees entailed posto fisso (employment for life). Now, large employers are permitted to offer contracts for a fixed duration, sometimes as little as six months. However, an employee can only renew a time-limited contract once. After that, the company must offer posto fisso.

The relative relaxation of labor laws has also given rise to almost U.S.-style contracts, where the hours an employee puts in are less important than the work that is actually accomplished. One example is the collaborazione a progetto or “Co.Co.Pro” contracts, a “per-project” contract. It is a legal hybrid between freelance and full-time work, releasing the employer from certain payments and responsibilities. In general, though, the majority of contracts are full-time, complete with all the union-guaranteed benefits.

Italian Workplace Benefits

For starters, you can expect 12 national holidays and at least four weeks of vacation, often five or six, depending on your contract. Many people end up taking off two weeks around Christmas and most of the month of August. Italian cities traditionally close down in August, although this is slowly changing. More companies have decided to spread out their employees’ vacations to alleviate the frustration of international clients. (It also means less summer traffic on highways and fully booked resorts.) If you don’t use up all four or five weeks in a year, you can theoretically carry over your vacation days into the next year, though many companies require you to periodically go on vacation to make bookkeeping easier.

There are 12 bank holidays nationwide, and each city also gets its patron saint’s day off. Romans, for example, celebrate Saints Peter and Paul (June 29), while workers in Milan get Saint Ambrose’s day off (December 7). If a saint’s day or national holiday falls on a Friday or Monday, workers naturally get a three-day weekend. Even better, if it falls on a Tuesday or Thursday, it generally becomes a ponte (bridge)—a four-day weekend. For Romans, it means a fortuitous beach holiday, while Saint Ambrose marks the beginning of ski season for the Milanese.

Maternity entails five months of paid leave, spread out on either side of giving birth. Women on maternity leave receive 80 percent of their salary. Furthermore, they can request an additional six months off at 30 percent pay and be guaranteed their jobs when they want to return to work. It is not uncommon for a woman to file for extra sick days above and beyond those nine months. Like any other sick day in Italy, it needs to be backed up by a doctor’s note. A company can send a state inspector to the person’s home as well, to make sure that it is not just an excuse to go shopping.

In general, employees are allowed 180 days of paid sick leave. Above and beyond that, the matter is referred to the pensions office, as the person is considered disabled. Either way, Italians don’t need to worry too much about staying healthy in order to keep their salaries.

Indeed, job security is so solid in Italy that companies must prove a “just cause” bordering on an egregious breach, such as breaking the law, in order to fire somebody. Countless lawsuits—or even the threat thereof—have resulted in a fired employee’s reinstatement. One such high-profile case involved baggage handlers at an airport in Milan. They were caught on videotape stealing valuables such as cash and jewels from passengers’ luggage, found guilty in court, but never fired.

In fact, it is nearly impossible to terminate an employee’s lifetime contract, as even the “justified motive” of downsizing has to be cleared with the unions first. Most companies prefer to just brush the worker aside by keeping up salary payments but not requiring his or her presence at work.

Working In Nero

It is no wonder, then, that many Italian companies prefer to take the illegal route and pay their employees in nero (under the table). Figures from the Italian Institute of Economic and Social Research (IRES) in 2009 pinned the underground economy at about 15 percent of the GDP, while police stings nationwide regularly reveal that about half of the companies probed are paying employees under the table, 10 percent of whom are foreigners according to IRES. That makes Italy one of the worst offenders in Western Europe, and the real numbers are probably even higher. Large companies periodically hold “appreciation days” for local law enforcement communities, inviting them to sample the goods, ostensibly in return for lenient inspections.

The lack of an outcry against laws that engender such behavior means that things aren’t likely to change soon. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who ran on an antiestablishment platform, was only codifying a time-honored tradition when he decriminalized false accounting. Cooking the books has always been seen in Italy as a necessary evil in the face of an oppressive state. It remains to be seen whether that law will be revisited now that Berlusconi has faded from public life.

While working under the table may be a tempting offer in order to avoid the hassle of never-ending Italian paperwork, the truth is that an employee has little to gain by taking such a risk. “Freelancers,” as they are euphemistically known, do not have access to the extensive health care that full-time contracts provide, nor will they receive social security payments when they retire.

It’s not altogether different from the situation in the United States, with one important exception: Italians depend almost exclusively on state pensions for their retirement. The concept of the private retirement fund is only slowly catching on, and frankly, it’s hard to save for your golden years when your pretax income is only €1,250 a month.


Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Living Abroad in Italy.

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1 Comment

  1. Steven Phraner says:

    Interesting article, thanks for using my photo.
    Steven Phraner, Byfield,Ma