By Eric J. Lyman
ROME, March 4 (Xinhua) -- There is one macroeconomic category where Italy is emerging as one of the leaders among European Union member states, but it is not a positive one -- Italy this month surpassed Spain to have the second highest level of youth unemployment in the 28-nation bloc.
According to the latest data from Italy's National Statistics Institute, or ISTAT, Italy's overall employment rates improved very slightly in January, climbing 0.1 percent compared to December.
But that modest improvement took place despite a 0.3-percent increase in the number of unemployed youths -- defined as workers under the age of 25 -- driving the overall unemployment rate for the country's youngest workers to 33 percent.
The new figure was enough for Italy to surpass Spain as the European Union member state for second on the list of those where it is difficult for young workers to find a job. Only Greece has a bigger problem related to youth unemployment than Italy.
The problem is a long-standing one in Italy, according to Marco Leonardi, an economist in the Department for the Study of Labor and Welfare at the State University of Milan.
"After World War II and through the 1970s young people in Italy had an easy time finding work in the manufacturing sector," Leonardi told Xinhua.
"But starting in the 1980s when the number of people going to university began to dramatically increase, youth unemployment levels started to climb. They've remained high ever since."
Emilio Reyneri, a professor emeritus of labor sociology in the Department of Social Research and Sociology at the University of Milan Bicocca, said that because of other demographic trends in themselves problematic for Italy, the youth unemployment problem is not as bad as it would otherwise be.
"Italy's birthrate is among the lowest in the world, and that means there are fewer people under the age of 25 than one would expect in a country as large as Italy," Reyneri said in an interview.
Reyneri said unemployment figures are also tempered by a trend of many of the brightest young people leaving the country to find work, keeping their names off the unemployment rolls.
"Within Europe, Italy is a net exporter of young college graduates and a net importer of older laborers," Reyneri said.
Neither Reyneri nor Leonardi said that university education is a negative in and of itself. But Leonardi called for the country's education system needs to be reformed.
"I do think our university education system is too focused on academics and theory and too little on the practical side," Leonardi said. "The manufacturing sector in Italy is still strong, the second strongest in the European Union, following Germany."
He went on: "Companies say there are as many as 200,000 technical jobs to be filled and too few qualified workers at the same time many college graduates are unemployed and living with their parents," Leonardi said.
Leonardi suggested reforming the labor landscape by creating an educational path for high school graduates who want to find work in technical fields.