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MILAN (Reuters) - For more than a century unskilled Italians have gone abroad to escape poverty, but these days the people running for the exits are among the country's top brains.
A growing wave of technologists, researchers and entrepreneurs is flowing away from the motherland. Few think this weekend's elections will do much to alleviate the gloom.
"I am Italian and I love Italy. But every time I come back to visit, I see the country is sliding a little further back," said Andrea Ballarini, an economics graduate who left for the U.S. West Coast nearly three years ago.
When Ballarini graduated from the elite Bocconi, Italy's best-known university, he had no plans to leave home and dreamed of setting up his own company in his native land.
But as economic crisis began to bite three years ago, the 32-year-old entrepreneur crossed the Atlantic.
"My business partner and I bought a ticket for San Francisco. We just wanted to check Silicon Valley out. We never came back," said Ballarini, who was won over by the pro-business atmosphere of the West Coast and now runs a virtual business fair platform called HyperFair.
"Back in Italy, each day began with a list of the problems I had to solve. Here I make each day a list of the things I want to do," he added.
Faced with soaring unemployment and declining economic activity, young Italians are following previous generations in seeking their fortunes abroad, disillusioned by an economy in which graduates must often take precarious and menial jobs.
Data from Italian statistical institute ISTAT show that the proportion of emigrants who have a degree has doubled between 2001 and 2010, to 15.9 percent of all migrants.
They go to European nations like Britain and Germany but also, despite working restrictions, to the United States, data from Istat show. Their monthly salaries are on average 540 euros higher than those of similar professionals who stay at home.
Italians started to emigrate to north and south America in the second half of the 19th century. Another wave of migration began after World War Two.
"Those leaving Italy in the aftermath of World War Two and then in the 1960s and 1970s were in the majority very poor, unskilled workers. They became coal miners in Belgium or worked on infrastructure projects in Germany," said Pietro Luigi Biagioni, who heads the Paolo Cresci Foundation for the History of Italian Emigration.
"Today's migration is very different."
Qualified professionals are losing hope in Italy's ability to revive its stagnant economy and eradicate cronyism, red tape and a punitive tax regime.
Italy has been in recession since mid-20ll and the euro zone's most sluggish economy for well over a decade.
At just below 37 percent, youth unemployment in Italy is the highest since records began 20 years ago. The "lost generation" has become a hot election issue.
Amid rising unemployment, even more posts than before appear to be awarded through connections rather than talent.
Some join the brain drain even before finishing education.
"A large number - tens of thousands - of those studying for a PhD or research post are leaving Italy," said Mario Calderini, a special adviser to Education Minister Francesco Profumo.
"We are losing top quality students and researchers but are not attracting a similar number of high-quality people."
Italian universities are unattractive to foreign students and graduates because of the low wages offered to researchers, the complex hiring process and the use of Italian. According to OECD data, only 4 percent of those studying at Italian universities are foreigners and there are few foreign teachers.
Until recently, offers for university jobs were only published in Italian and the selection system tended to favour internal candidates from local universities.
Calderini said the technocrat government of Mario Monti had introduced the use of English for university job adverts, but much still needs to be done to woo foreign researchers, who tend to earn more outside Italy.
"The difference in salary is a factor as well as the risk of unemployment," said Calderini.
"Not everyone is able to find a job as Italian industry absorbs very few of these highly-educated professionals."
More than 95 percent of Italian companies employ fewer than 10 people. They do not have the resources to invest in research and development and the cash-strapped state is cutting back in its own research funding.
Some institutions are trying to lure the talented home.
The Genoa-based Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), founded only six years ago, specialises in bio-robotics, a futuristic branch of robotic engineering that has blossomed in Italy thanks to the country's strong manufacturing traditions.
The institute, whose working language is English, has managed to bring Italian scientists back to the country by offering competitive wages, an international working environment and well-funded, innovative projects.
Around 17 percent of the scientists working at the IIT are Italians who used to work abroad.
"There are very few places in Italy where you can combine a technological background with scientific research," said Diego Ghezzi, 32, researching synaptic neuroscience at the IIT. "If I hadn't come here, I would have had to leave the country."
Reporting by Lisa Jucca; Editing by Andrew Roche