ROME - 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.
Maria Adele Carrai of Italy poses in Central, Hong Kong, Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012. Maria Adele Carrai has two master degrees from Italian universities in economics and Asian languages and is now earning her PhD in international law in Hong Kong. Her linguist credentials are formidable: besides native Italian, they include nearly flawless English, a rarity in Italy; French, Arabic, Japanese and now Mandarin.
"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."
Class of 2012 member Moira Koffi, who recently completed her studies at the prestigious Sorbonne university in Paris, talks about the importance of connections in France: "If you are recommended by someone, it's the first thing you say: It's how you get a job."
While Koffi, a 22-year-old communications grad, has herself benefited from the system, she still wishes connections weren't so decisive in finding employment. "In the U.S.," Koffi said, "people give you a chance because of what you are."
Sorbonne sociology professor Jean-Francois Amadieu said that 70 percent of French people find a job through personal connections or through an internship - which itself is usually only possible with the right connection. "Youths from modest backgrounds have great difficulties finding internships compare to those from the middle or wealthy classes because of more restricted family networks," he said.
In Italy, the connections culture "has grown even more with the worsening of the economic crisis," said economist Emiliano Mandrone. He's well-positioned to know: Every year, Mandrone helps prepare a state-funded telephone survey of some 40,000 citizens to learn how Italians find their jobs.
"The issue of 'raccomandazioni' isn't, do you find work or don't you," said Mandrone. "Rather, the problem is, you take work away from someone who is better."
Mandrone said the price of the "raccomandazione" system to Italian society and economy has not been quantified in financial terms, but it's clearly "huge."
Italy's connections culture has long been blamed in large part for spurring the "brain drain" of many of Italy's best and brightest. The Institute for Competitiveness, a non-profit Italian think tank, recently estimated that brain drain costs Italy some euros 1.2 billion (more than $1.5 billion) annually in terms of lost patent and other royalties from inventions that highly qualified emigrants from Italy developed while working abroad.
In Greece, ground zero for Europe's financial crisis, a vast connections-based political machine is seen as a major factor in the economic implosion. In return for votes, the major parties slotted job seekers with political connections into cushy bureaucratic jobs - with little experience or qualifications.
The result: When the financial crisis erupted in late 2009, the government didn't even know how many people it had on its payroll or how much it was paying them.
Germany may be an exception to the trend of European talent taking flight or being stymied in realizing professional dreams. In former communist East Germany, who you knew in the party apparatus was very important to climbing the economic ladder. But in today's united Germany, connections are not seen as a major part of corporate culture.
Class of 2012 member Lutz Hentschel, 27, who completed his master's in electrical engineering earlier this year, sent out about 40 applications before landing a job in Berlin developing electrical circuits for elevators.
During his job hunt, he said, he was once interviewed for a job that ultimately went to a less qualified applicant who knew the interviewer.
But, in Germany, said Hentschel, "if you are qualified, you will get a job in the end,"
Britain grapples with another longstanding system of patronage - its "old school tie network" that conjures up images of men sporting school blazers or hobnobbing in exclusive gentleman's clubs. While Britain has made great strides in becoming more meritocratic, complaints remain rife that access to prestigious jobs often relies on upper-crust social background and education.
In southern Europe, however, the culture of "raccommandazioni" permeates all social classes and sectors - from landing a job in a bank to winning a building contract.
Carrai, the linguist and aspiring international law expert, ruefully learned how much connections count even in the rarefied world of academia. She moved to Hong Kong to escape the stifling atmosphere of university nepotism: "I saw how it worked. I didn't want to stay in Italy and stick with this system."
"'Raccomandazioni' are to a certain degree a normal, human," she said. But cross a certain line "and it becomes corruption."
AP reporters David Stringer in London, Greg Keller in Paris, Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal, Alan Clendenning in Madrid, Spain, David Rising in Berlin, Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, and Paola Barisani in Rome contributed to this report.
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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.