Rome/Udine – In a country with the highest youth unemployment in the European Union after Greece and Spain, finding work "is a job in itself," says Michela Annunziata, a 24-year-old from the southern Italian province of Salerno.
She is one of more than 12,000 candidates, mostly from the south, who this week travelled all the way to the north-eastern region of Friuli Venezia-Giulia for a public sector exam offering 466 nursing jobs, paying about 1,500 euros (1,850 dollars) a month.
Winning one of those places "would be like playing the national lottery and winning the 6-billion-euro prize," says another 24-year-old hopeful, Luigi, who hails from the Amalfi coast, but lives in Rome.
Young people have suffered disproportionately from the record double-dip recession that struck Italy after 2008. Youth unemployment more than doubled, reaching a high of 43.4 per cent in early 2014, and now stands at around 32 per cent.
"Voyages of hope"
Dpa met Michela and Luigi in a car park in the far-eastern outskirts of Rome, and boarded an overnight bus with them for a journey, with about another 50 candidates, to the nursing exam in Friuli, about 650 kilometers north-east of the Italian capital.
"They call these the 'Voyages of hope'," bus driver Gino tells dpa. He and a colleague take candidates to public sector exams "up to twice a week."
"We've been to Foligno in Umbria and all around northern Italy: Milan, Turin, La Spezia, Parma."
It was the idea of two 20-something job-seeking nurses from the Salerno area, Raffaele Di Sieno and Umberto Formisano, to start the bus journeys. Their company, Bus To Go, advertises nursing exams and bus connections for them on Facebook.
On Monday, Gino started from Cava dei Tirreni, near Salerno. He picked up people in Rome at 10:20 pm (2120 GMT), and dropped them off outside exam halls in the town of Udine at 6:40 am on Tuesday. He then went to sleep, and returned eight hours later to start the return trip.
"It's the first time I take this bus, but compared to the cost of a train or plane ticket, it is affordable," Giovanna, from the Roman suburb of Ostia, says. "As soon as the exam it's over, they take you back."
"My dream for the future is a steady job"
Travelling this way avoids hotel costs, and keeps to a minimum the time one takes off to sit in the exams. Most candidates already have jobs, but temporary ones, and dream of the job security that comes with public sector employment.
In a testimony to those feelings, the name of Checco Zalone – a comedian whose 2016 box office hit "Quo Vado?" (Where am I going?), which lampooned the Italian obsession with a "posto fisso" (a permanent, state-sector job) – was often evoked, jokingly, on the way to Udine.
"My dream for the future is a steady job," says Valentino, also from Ostia. "I don't want to always have to worry, 'How long will I have a job for?' Of course you can start a family without a steady job, but you want to have stability to guarantee a future to your offspring."
Disillusionment among the young
Amid such concerns, the looming March 4 general elections elicit little hope. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the young people on the bus are planning to vote for the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S).
Success among younger generations, and in the poorer south, could make the difference for the M5S, which is polling at just under 30 per cent, while a conservative bloc led by ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi leads with about 37 per cent of votes.
Luigi is more disillusioned, and says "many people won't vote, there will be a high abstention rate." He says "there is too much populism, all political leaders [...] make promises, but it's hard to believe them. We've seen it all before."
Brain drain a "real emergency"
He and Erika, a 23-year-old friend from university, say they are giving themselves "three or four years" to find a good job in Italy, or else they are voting with their feet, and moving abroad "where jobs on offer are a bit better."
In November, national statistics agency Istat said Italy's annual emigration rate more than tripled in a decade, to 115,000 in 2016. That figure included 81,000 adults above the age of 24, and almost 25,000 university graduates.
According to business lobby Confindustria, Italy's brain drain is a "real emergency" that could stunt future economic growth by 1 percentage point per year. Reversing the trend should be top of the list for anyone who wins the March 4 polls.