By FRANCES D'EMILIO, Associated Press
ROME (AP) — Maria Adele Carrai has two master's degrees from Italian universities in economics and Asian languages and is now earning her Ph.D. in international law in Hong Kong. Her linguistic credentials are formidable: Besides native Italian, she has nearly flawless English, a rarity in Italy, as well as French, Arabic, Japanese and Mandarin.
But the 26-year-old from a family of physicians in a small town near the Adriatic Sea, lacks an increasingly crucial key to unlocking the door to work in Italy: a "raccomandazione." It's Italian for the right word from the right person to get you hired, even if you might not be the best one for the job.
As Europe's economic crisis darkens the future of millions of youth, the culture of connections that has lain at the heart of hiring practices in much of the continent is becoming ever more entrenched, even as it harms prospects of recovery. It is blocking young talent or driving it overseas, and contributing to a vicious circle of stagnation that threatens to leave Europe behind in the game of globalization.
Editors: This is the latest installment in Class of 2012, an exploration of Europe's financial crisis through the eyes of young people emerging from the cocoon of student life into the worst downturn the continent has seen since the end of World War II.
"What matters is not how good you are, but who you know," laments Carrai, who first spoke to the AP for a Class of 2012 story on the continent's devastating brain drain. To be sure, having a good connection never hurts, anytime, anywhere. But in much of Europe, especially the crisis-hammered south, it's often the main ticket to economic opportunity: Without one, young people and experts say, there's little chance of being launched on a promising career.
Marco Pacetti, rector of Ancona's Polytechnical University, puts it this way: "In the U.S. ... connections matter, but you'd better be good. In Italy, nobody counts on the one with the connection to have competence, merit."
"That's the difference between a letter of recommendation and a 'raccomandazione,'" Pacetti says with a wry chuckle. In America, "the letter writer takes on the responsibility of sending over someone who is well prepared — who's not an idiot."
A scandal at Rome's Sapienza, one of Italy's oldest and best-known universities, drives home the point. In a case dubbed "relative-gate," the wife, daughter and son of Sapienza's longtime rector landed prestigious teaching posts despite having limited qualifications. The real shocker came when it emerged that the rector's son passed his cardiology exam thanks to an examining panel made up of three dentists and two dental hygienists.
Spain has its own deep-rooted system of connections — called "enchufismo." As in Italy, it's an outgrowth of a Mediterranean culture of family networks where members of the clan look out for each other. Many southern Europeans have a practically inbred distrust of the state, often associated with corruption — and family is the one institution they can count on.
Connections became less critical during Spain's economic boom from the late 1990s until 2008, but are now proving crucial again in a country with unemployment at nearly 25 percent.
"In Spain, you always had 'enchufismo,' but at least in boom times you had access to interviews and work (without connections)," said Maria Astilleros, an unemployed teacher in Madrid. "Since the crisis hit, the interviews have ended and we've gone back to 'enchufismo.'"
Astilleros recently secured her first job interview in two years, with a public relations company, because the owner is a client of her uncle.
Gayle Allard, an American professor of managerial economics at the IE Business School in Madrid, estimated that about 95 percent of jobs in Spain depend on connections.
"It was one of the things that shocked me in Spain," said Allard, "that you could only move around in the labor market with contacts."
The professor said that such an ingrained culture of nepotism has a corrosive effect on economic growth, which is more crucial than ever as Spain reels under staggeringly high youth unemployment of nearly 53 percent. Spain is "definitely not a meritocracy," Allard said. "You're probably not getting the best qualified candidate for a job. You're just getting the candidate with the best contacts."