I heard plenty of unfortunate reports about working in Italy before I made the jump to move here. The decision to begin an Italian life was a joint one with my fiancé, so we could put an end to the long distance commuting between him in Italy and me in England.
But I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I was warned about Italy’s low employment rate – especially for women – and high taxes. I also spoke to people who’d tried life in Italy and they cautioned, that as I hadn’t learned Italian before, the language barrier would also be tricky.
Still, I put on a positive face and was determined to do my best to make it work here.
Italy has indeed got many perks – its food and scenery is just the start – but the romantic tourist impression is different from building a future.
That seems obvious, but the disparity between a sun-soaked fortnight and the reality of everyday life often comes as a shock.
Some of the negative rumours around Italian corporate culture are accurate, but working for an Italian company isn’t to be totally written off either.
Above all, it’s a really good way to integrate into a new life. You meet people and make your own connections and friends, which I found to be so important for my mental health and own sense of independence.
Whether you move to Italy alone or with a partner, working for a business gives you a routine, some roots to grow from and opens up doors for new opportunities.
But, as I found, it can be jaw-clenchingly frustrating.
Who you know is helpful but not essential
I spent around three months job searching when I first arrived. I moved to a town near Bologna almost six months before the pandemic hit, so Covid-19 hadn’t yet impacted the job market even further.
Still, I found it tough to get going. I walked around businesses and schools with my CV, as my background is in both journalism and education.
I eventually found a private school to work for, which was Italian-run but conducted all its lessons in English. It seemed a good place for me to find my feet.
I knew the work culture was different on the first day.
“You might not want to stay here, as it’s crazy,” the office personnel told me as she showed me around.
Not quite the usual HR schtick. I sniffed politely and chuckled it off. I can do crazy, I thought. I spent years dealing with celebrities and divas when I worked in London.
I’d done well to get a job, so people told me. I’d landed a position despite knowing nobody and this went against the notion that finding employment in Italy is all about having contacts.
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On closer inspection, though, it turned out it was a very family-run business and if you were a relative of the founder, you got a job there.
So nepotism existed, but it didn’t stop me from getting in either.
The staff were polite, friendly and wanted to know all about where I came from and what I’d be doing there. The teachers were mainly Italian but could speak English, for the most part, so I could relax and be myself without struggling through my beginner Italian at that time.
But when it came to meetings, everyone largely reverted to Italian. They talked vigorously over each other and I just moved my head back and forth, watching the linguistic tennis.
Afterwards, I asked one of them who spoke English to give me a précis of what just happened. Despite thinking I’d found a place where I could work in English, I quickly realised you have to learn Italian to some degree – and fast.
Disorganisation is rife but you get lunch
Here’s where the famous Italian lack of organisation really shone through. Departments struggled to communicate to each other and problems cropped up as a result. Overlapping and doubling up on work, different agendas and changing everything on a whim last-minute were commonplace.
The last point is something that really pushed my buttons. I couldn’t help it. There’s being flexible and there’s what you’d call a ‘casino’, as the Italians say.
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Especially if you deliver on a lengthy project, only to be informed that it’s not needed anymore or that someone else already did it. That really got my goat.
Whether this drives you to the edge depends on your personality. There were times I got annoyed. Other times, I laughed to myself at the utter comedy of the place.
Often, I would sit waiting for a meeting to start, pad and pen at the ready, poised for making stuff happen. Then the person you were expecting arrives 20 minutes late and asks, “Have you eaten?”.
Well, you can’t think on an empty stomach, can you?
You have to surrender and go with it if you decide to get on the Italian payroll. You can’t change the culture single-handedly and you have to make peace with a different pace and customs.
It’s a culture adjustment, but there are upsides too. I mean, a girl’s gotta eat.
Promotion and pay can be poor
There’s also the snag of pay and career mobility.
How much money you make and your career progression are key factors in deciding which company you want to work for in other countries and big cities.
In Italy, though, you quickly learn that your pay packet is often dismal and it’s really hard to move through the ranks and make more cash.
You’re heavily taxed and INPS, or social security contributions, are substantial too – even if the employer pays most of those for you.
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What you take home each month is highly likely to be a massive blow compared to what you’ve earned in the UK or US, for example.
I think that was a big stumbling block for me, because even though there is way more to life than money, you can feel undervalued and disheartened that you’ve worked so hard for your qualifications and experience, to only bring home barely what you’d make part-time back home.
Northern Italian cities are best for finding employment, but also have the highest living costs. Photo: Andrey Andreev/Unsplash
Or you think back to when you last earned a wage so low and I couldn’t. Even my first job after leaving university paid more.
The north of Italy isn’t that cheap a place to live. So as much as you can wholeheartedly believe the ‘money doesn’t buy you happiness’ adage, you still have to pay the bills and likely want enough left over to enjoy your surroundings.
But the Italian quality of life has a value beyond your bank balance
Still, there is a trade-off and a benefit to be found in all this. The work-life balance is definitely better than what I’ve experienced elsewhere.
I’m beyond climbing the greasy pole and want to enjoy more life lived outdoors, spending time with loved ones and taking more downtime for my own health. I once experienced burnout and I couldn’t imagine working for a company that demanded 60-70 hours per week from me anymore.
That’s unlikely in Italy. The love of family time – and eating – ensures a better chance of overall health. They also have a lot of national holidays, which means you get a day off fairly frequently.
If a festival day falls on a Tuesday or Thursday, they may even do something called ‘fare il ponte’, which means they’ll give you another day off to bridge the gap and make it an extra long weekend.
For me, the better quality of life is worth pushing through the tougher aspects of working for a company in Italy.
But the holy grail is to get hold of a ‘tempo indeterminato’ contract. This is a permanent position and means you have job security. They are rare to come by – for both Italians and foreigners. In fact, I’ve met people who have had ‘indeterminato’ parties when they finally get one of these elusive work contracts.
I never did and my ‘determinato’ (fixed term) contract got rolled on a few times until, in the end, my hours got cut so much that it didn’t justify the travel costs and I couldn’t renew again.
If you manage to bag a permanent job and can focus on the benefits you get from living in Italy, such as the privilege of world-class attractions and cuisine, then it’s absolutely worth going for.
It’s not impossible to achieve and could be an exciting adventure for a few years. You might not save much cash for your next step, but you will live well and just might discover a new, more ‘tranquillo’, side of yourself.
If you’d like to share your own experience of working in Italy for a future article, please email the editor here.