Eleonora Voltolina

This description of Eleonora Voltolina's work was prepared when Eleonora Voltolina was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2017 .

Introduction

To tackle youth unemployment and unfair labour conditions for young people, Eleonora Voltolina has identified gaps and opportunities in the increasingly long period between the end of formal education and the beginning of paid work. Eleonora has become a key reference point in Italy and beyond by working with key players in the field of youth employment - from job seekers to the government - to promote fairer business practices and more comprehensive standards for internships.

The New Idea

Labour rights struggles have always focused on the progressive inclusion of groups previously deemed unworthy of holding rights. Eleonora helps us to see that a new underclass of unpaid or underpaid workers - often white-collar and highly qualified - is emerging and that their exploitation has become acceptable because it is less blatantly repressive or violent.

Eleonora gives voice to many young people who are entering the labor market, most often through internships. In the context of massive youth unemployment in Southern Europe, internships are often abused as long periods of unpaid, or underpaid work, sometimes stretching for years, at a critical time when young people are seeking economic independence from their families. Commonly, those internships provide little or no training or path to paid employment.

Through La Repubblica degli Stagisti (the Interns’ Republic), Eleonora works with the three key players - interns, companies and the government - to transform the internship period from simply labor extraction to a pathway from education to employment. She has created an online platform to connect and organize interns across Italy. She works with interns to build this information portal, which hosts job and internship vacancies, updates to changes in legislation and large forums for interns to share their experiences, flag malpractices and highlight good practices. Eleonora has also created an alliance with companies to promote internships as a tool to give young people experience and not as a cheap alternative to paid labour. Eleonora sees transparency as key to changing corporate culture. She annually collects data from these companies with metrics related to youth unemployment. Nearly all the companies working with Eleonora hire over 30 percent of interns for regular employment, nearly three times the national average of 9 percent. Finally, she has worked in parallel with local, national and increasingly European administrations to change policy. She appreciates the tension between regulation and opportunity and has worked to propose a set of minimum requirements for fair internships that would guarantee basic rights without over-regulating the sector. She’s achieved results in Italy and is now expanding her work at a European level.

Ultimately, Eleonora is trying to fill a vacuum that is increasingly longer and deeper: the gap between the end of education and the beginning of paid work. As her work on internships has led to a successful policy change, Eleonora is now trying to actively lower the age at which young people prepare for the job market, ideally while still in education. She is, therefore, planning to focus on career advice for people in their early 20s, in particular for young women, who, while obtaining better academic results than their male counterparts, suffer much more from unemployment.

The Problem

About 5.6 million young people in Europe (aged 15-24) are currently looking for a job, while another 33 million are inactive. Unemployment is one the greatest challenges in Europe, especially for young people who face strong barriers when approaching the labor market. In fact, young people that enter the labor market after their studies or their job training, are entering a grey area where they have weak rights and face high barriers to entry.

The transitional period between education and work gets longer during periods of economic crisis, as the labor market shrinks and its conditions are worsened by opportunistic behavior from employers. In fact, internships in particular become misused due to a lack of information, transparency, and regulation. This phenomenon affects a large part of the population: 50 percent of European youth goes through an internship before finding the first meaningful job. However, internships have often failed to serve as a bridge between education and work in such periods of economic contraction. From to 2014 to 2015, Italy has experienced a 53% growth of internships, from 250,000 to 350,000, with a post-internship employment rate of only 9 percent. The youth unemployment rate has barely changed and is still around 38% (compared to an UE average of 23.4%).

This problem has several consequences on the transition from childhood to adulthood, a period characterized by crucial decisions and life choices, such as leaving the parental home to study or work, being materially independent, moving in with a partner or getting married, and the choice of whether or not to have children. In fact, youth unemployment rates are strongly linked to most of these crucial decisions and to their long-term consequences. The European average age for leaving the parental household is 26. Northern and western countries have lower youth unemployment rates and therefore young people tend to live on their own earlier. In southern states the independency age is above the EU average, reaching 30 in Italy. This over reliance on family resources leads to a late start of adulthood, with negative social and economic consequences. Unemployment, underemployment, and overuse of internships are all elements that trap young adults into precarious living conditions, making it harder for them to thrive as citizens, as workers and as change makers in society.

Until recently, internships were short transitional experiences that most countries thought were best left to the private sector to independently decide whether and under which conditions to offer them. But in a context of stagnation and high unemployment, in which Italy has been for almost a decade, lack of regulation has led to widespread abuse. The average duration of this transitional period is 6 months in Europe, 14 in Italy. Eleonora mentions a case in point, perpetrated by the public administration of one of Italy’s regions. Two-year unpaid internships were offered for people up to 35 years of age. Some would start when they were 35 and end at age 37 with no income and no real follow-on paid employment opportunity.

This problem is acerbated by the lack of responsibility shown by the private sector. Few companies see themselves as part of the solution and, with widespread and generally tolerated abuse of internships, those who do offer dignified conditions lack support and visibility. They also critically lack a channel to communicate to job-seekers and be believed as providers of quality training.

A further problem concerns the interns themselves. Unlike other social groups who experience discrimination collectively and individually, interns are transitional in nature and being an intern is not an identity they are proud of. Few speak publicly against the malpractice or try to organize themselves effectively as other groups of exploited workers. Nobody wishes to identify themselves in a weak and precarious category as they wish to moe out of it. This has contributed to create a mindset that tolerates exploitation as a necessary, even educational, sacrifice. As a consequence, according to a 2016 report, more than half of the young people in Europe have the impression that youth have been marginalized and excluded from economic and social life by the crisis in their country. In Italy, that figure reaches 78 percent. In Italy, 26 percent of young people feel compelled to leave their country. According to ISTAT, this results in a brain drain of about 54,000 youth per year, 30 percent of whom are university graduates, and a loss of about € 1.5 billion per year for the country. Overall, these interns are not organized as a group and work in isolation trying to learn what a good internship is supposed to be and where they can be found. University in Italy is long and intense. Most students do not approach job seeking until after their graduation. The average person seeking advice from Eleonora is 26 years old. Career advice is weak or non-existent in school and university, and one-to-one support is only rarely provided.

The Strategy

Eleonora founded "Repubblica degli Stagisti" as an Italian editorial initiative in 2009 and over the years, it has turned into a national reference point for the transition between education and work, and in particular on internships. The Italian Constitution begins with the words “Italy is a Republic founded on work”. Eleonora’s first article, in the first months of the financial crisis that led to a huge economic and social crisis, began with “Italy is a Republic founded on internships”. As the expression caught on, it became the title of her blog and, later, of her organization.

Eleonora’s aim is to promote better rights for young workers, and she wishes to shape a more ethical, dynamic and stimulating labour market for young people throughout Europe. She started by working with companies to set standards and seek policy change for the transitional phase from education, to work for the least protected figure: the intern. Her strategy revolves around information, and operates at four different levels:
1. Clear and independent information on the topic, to reduce asymmetry between the employers and interns;
2. Transparency to encourage firms to adopt ethical and fair internships policies;
3. Policy change reflected in legislation; and
4. Creation of a community of interns to share experiences and insights

Her first line of action is to collect and channel information, to involve different stakeholders in the debate and in what she advocating for. She does so through her online newspaper where she collects information about recent legislative reforms, guidelines, case studies and interviews. She also denounces abuses and points out exemplary employers here. Her portal has become the central platform on the issue, but is also a source of information on labour rights in general. Information online is available to all visitors, which averages 100,000 unique users a month, and additional services are available for subscribers, who provide key demographic data but can remain anonymous. With over 50,000 subscribers, this allows Eleonora to collect important data on jobseekers. Subscribers can apply for internships that have been approved by La Repubblica degli Stagisti.

The second part of her strategy is the improvement of internship standards. Recognizing that employers can enhance their ability to recruit top candidates by public recognition of their responsible internship practices, she has created a network of employers serious about providing work opportunities that can be real learning experiences. To join the network, employers must commit to implement ethical and fair internships policies, according to the standards she set in the “Interns’ Rights Chart”, for which she charges an annual fee, which is the main source of revenue for her venture.

The standards set by Eleonora are:
• The firm must pay a wage of at least 500€ per month for graduated interns and 250€ for curricular interns;
• The firm must publish the number of interns each year and the current rate of post-internship employment;
• The firm must appoint a tutor for each intern and ensure that a learning plan is set up for the intern to gain a meaningful work experience and acquire new skills;
• The firm must make public the overall number of employees and the types of contracts they use.

By joining the network, firms can also submit vacancies on Eleonora’s platform. Moreover, the high performing employers can qualify for a special certification, called “OK Stage label,” an excellency award. To achieve that, in addition to the other conditions, they must maintain a post-internship employment rate three times higher than the national average (which is currently 9 percent). At the end of each year, the best performing firms in the network also receive the RDS Award, which recognizes the firm’s effort in promoting youth opportunities through ethical labor and internship policies.

As interns come and go, but the problem remains, she has decided not to focus only on this fluid group, but critically on institutions and companies as well, in order to achieve a broader and faster impact. Her network of exemplary companies involves 34 companies, which employ over 50,000 people and include big employers such as Ferrero, Bosch, PwC, Mars, Nestlé and EY. Between 2013 and 2015, these companies accepted more than 6000 well paid and quality internships. She also has a program for smaller companies, with lower targets and a lower fee.

To fill the legislation gaps in the sector, Eleonora has also been very active on advocacy and policy consulting. By consulting with policymakers as an expert, she has managed to help shape reforms, proposals and policies on the theme. After one of her reports on the abuse of internships by the Regione Calabria became a national case, she was contacted by the Tuscan Regional government to advise on a blueprint legislation to regulate internships. Most of her recommendations were included in the first ever guidelines issued by a region in Italy. Her achievements with Tuscany led her to also be called by the national government in 2013 to set up a model legislation for all regions. Her work led to the introduction of a national regulation for internships in Italy, which recognize a minimum, mandatory salary of 300€ to 600€ a month for non-curricular internships. She is still fighting for the recognition of a minimum payment also for curricular internships.

In Europe, her model was replicated in 2012 by internsgopro.eu after being invited by the OECD to present the European Quality Charter of Internships and Apprenticeships, which in 2014 became the European Commission’s Recommendation “Quality Framework for Traineeships,” which is now starting to be applied. Moreover, Eleonora was among the organizers of “International Intern’s Day.”

The last part of her strategy is to foster the creation of a community of interns who can share experiences and insights. This is done mostly through the interns’ forums available on her platform. She has started to experiment with the organization of groups called “Interns Anonymous” meetings: support groups in which interns within a city meet regularly to voice their problems and receive advice and support from other interns or from Eleonora herself.

Eleonora has already achieved national impact by making unpaid post-graduation internships illegal. She’s now eager to expand her network of exemplary companies, in order to trigger isomorphism in the market and expand her revenue to increase organizational capacity. She is currently looking at Europe to find synergies with other youth lobbying groups in the European ecosystem. With a more and more integrated labour market across the European Union, Eleonora is trying to tackle this issue across borders in Europe by working with the European Parliament. At the same time as the issue of internships is being partially addressed, she’s moving onto other spheres related to youth employment, in particular of the transition from study to work. She is exploring the field of career advice by school and universities with attention to gender dynamics. Making sure that young people experiment with internships in different fields while they are still in education is an objectives she wants to pursue by involving the network of companies she has already gathered, policymakers who trust her and thousands of young people across Italy who rely on her platform and services.

The Person

Eleonora was born in Rome but was raised in Venice. During her school years she attended theatre and art classes and had the chance to develop her creativity. After graduating from high school, she moved to Rome to attend university, and then to Turin after graduation, where she began her involvement in a Civil Rights association, Cittadinanzattiva. Its main objectives are the promotion of civic participation and the protection of citizens’ rights in Italy and in Europe.

Her dissertation followed the shift in public opinion on the issue of violence against animals, leading to new protective laws. She understood that a cultural change is possible thanks to a new consciousness raised in citizens and public opinion. In graduate school in Milan, she developed a passion for labour issues and she became a journalist specialized in this field, while continuing her commitment to women’s rights on health and access to reproductive technology.

Armed with her new master’s degree in journalism, she was ready to enter the labor market, but she faced several obstacles. She went through five internships, three of them during her studies. As Eleonora says: “After 5 internships, 3 during the journalism school, I realized there was a serious issue to talk about. I became passionate about the labor market and young people’s rights: for these reasons I opened the blog. But the feedback I had from the beginning was so strong, I strongly felt the need to make the leap into something wider and more far-reaching.” So in 2007 she started to write a blog, sharing her experience as an intern and information on legal issues relating to internships. It suddenly became the biggest voice in Italy on the subject and she’s been working on this issue since.