Italian cities face lack of skilled managers

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Italian cities face lack of skilled managers

BARI, Italy - Mayors in Italy's poor south should be relishing the prospect of billions of euro from the European Union's pandemic recovery fund, but lack of project management expertise could mean they can't take full advantage of the scheme.

A recovery and resilience fund could modernise the Italian economy via thousands of projects, especially in the less developed south, based on green transition, digitalisation, education and sustainable infrastructure.

This is a unique opportunity for us, Antonio Decaro, mayor of Bari in Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot, told a government roadshow promoting the scheme.

We need qualified people quickly to get these projects going, in order to not lose this chance. Other mayors said they had no staff qualified to draw up, manage and monitor projects they want to advance.

Leoluca Orlando, who runs Sicily's main city of Palermo, said he had only one technical manager authorised to sign off on EU project bids, while Gaetano Manfredi, the mayor of the biggest city in the south, Naples, said he had no technical managers.

Orlando told Reuters that it was an absurd situation.

The south accounts for just over 30% of Italy's population and little more than 20% of national economic output, and the gap between the centre and north is growing. It will receive 40% of Italy's EU funds to help it catch up.

After the 2008 financial crisis, years of budget austerity have taken a particularly heavy toll on already indebted southern administrations, forcing them to slash staff.

In 2008- 2018, the number of public sector workers fell by 27.8% against a 18.5% drop in the north, which has traditionally had a better track record of managing its resources, according to a Bank of Italy study.

The lack of skilled personnel is already feeling a lot.

All 31 proposals hurriedly put forward by Sicily for irrigation projects were rejected last month because they didn't meet the EU's demanding criteria.

Antonino Scilla, who heads the agriculture department on the Mediterranean island, said stringent deadlines were partly to blame, but a lack of expertise hurt his region.

It needs qualified personnel. We need a generational change. The average age of state employees here is 60, we need 30 year-olds, new graduates, he said.

The Mezzogiorno, or noon as the south is called in Italian, has lagged the rest of the country for decades, but the divide has accelerated this century.

In the south, the gross domestic product per capita is about 40% lower than in the centre-north, while the unemployment rate is 16.7% compared to 6.1% in the north. Youth unemployment is 43.3% compared to 20.8%.

The government hopes that the EU funds will lift Italy's output by 3.6% by the year 2026, with sizeable advances expected in the south.

Brussels has expressed concern about the region, whose track record of spending regular EU structural funds is poor.

Marco Buti, head of staff for the EU's economic affairs commissioner, said that the role of local authorities in the implementation of the recovery plan is a potential weakness.

He said that there is a natural bottleneck in Italy and that there is a lack of experienced managers when we look at the south of the country.

Bari currently has some 1,800 public sector workers, around 1,000 less than anticipated by the city staffing plan, while Manfredi said he thought Naples needed 1,000 more employees to take full advantage of the EU funds on offer.

Innovation Minister Vittorio Colao told dignitaries and businessmen that skills are scarce, and the government roadshow was held in a packed Bari theatre.

As a ministry, we can give partial help, but it is impossible to think we can do everything. I hope that companies and local authorities pool their resources. Roberto Garofoli, who is responsible for implementing the national recovery plan, told the Bari audience that small teams would be sent by various state agencies to help manage projects.

In the south, the government has pledged to hire 2,800 people to work on programmes.

A first tender drawd only 800 qualified applicants, with many professionals complaining that short-term contracts paying more than 1,500 euros a month was not appealing given the skills required.

The terms are being revised by the government.

Garofoli said that the administrative machine is worn out and lost expertise. This is a problem we have not inherited from the past government, but from decades of spending cuts. It is an enormous problem that you can't resolve in a few months.