Government strengthens TRACE youth employment assistance programme

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In July 2001, the French government announced that the 'road to employment' (Trajectoire d'ACces à l'Emploi, TRACE) programme, introduced in 1998, was to be extended and a new grant awarded to participants. The programme seeks to assist young people in the most difficult situation to find jobs. Most trade unions support TRACE, which has achieved some success so far but has experienced problems, notably a low level of private sector company involvement.

The 'road to employment' (Trajectoire d'ACces à l'Emploi, TRACE) programme was implemented under the 'anti-exclusion' law of 29 July 1998 (FR9806116F). It is designed to assist those young people under 26 years of age seen as the most marginalised in terms of employment.(those with no diplomas or vocational qualification, or suffering social, personal or family-related disadvantages) to find jobs.

In July 2001, the government, under part two of the 1998 anti-exclusion legislation, announced the consolidation of the programme through a 100% rise in the number of young people accepted and the creation of a grant, to be awarded under specific conditions to young people participating in the TRACE programme. The majority of trade unions support this programme, which nevertheless, highlights the recurrent difficulties faced in dealing with those sections of the population most marginalised from the labour market. These difficulties include identifying and supporting these groups and also the complex nature of developing partnerships. The programme, which falls under the French National Action Plan (NAP) for employment, in response to the EU Employment Guidelines, recently underwent 'peer review' by the European Commission.

The TRACE programme

The TRACE programme offers the target groups of young people an individualised, ongoing support scheme to help them make the transition to employment over a maximum 18-month period. The scheme focuses on training (acquisition of basic skills or a vocational qualification), employment measures (mainly in the non-market sector) and social benefits (housing, health and financial support). It is designed to enable 50% of participants to find long-term employment (permanent positions or jobs on a fixed-term contract of over six months) and is based on the implementation of provisions developed by the state and local authorities.

This scheme is based on a contractual commitment between the young jobseeker and a 'mentor' responsible for following up the young person's progress. The mentor makes a commitment to follow the young jobseeker in his or her transition to actual employment and to assist him or her in applying for social benefits. Each mentor tracks an average of approximately 30 young people. An initial so-called 'diagnostic phase' is undertaken to identify the difficulties facing the young person. This is geared to developing a personal plan and to identifying the various steps required in implementing it, as well as the various services to be involved.

The programme is based on local-level partnerships, including various associations and employment administration offices or social services, the National Employment Agency (Agence Nationale Pour l'Emploi, ANPE) and training organisations. Programme 'leaders', appointed by regional prefects, are chosen from within the Support Network (Réseau d'acceuil- see below) based on their ability to coordinate the various practitioners, to organise the integration of young people into the programme and to develop individualised employment plans. They operate within a local steering committee responsible for identifying the difficulties facing young people and for working out solutions adapted to local realities, through: the various measures available under employment policy (under state stewardship); vocational training (under the stewardship of the regions); the services provided by the ANPE; and encouraging the development of local employment, training or insertion initiatives. Lastly, 'external operators' (generally training bodies), are responsible for following young people in the field, in liaison with the steering committee. This is an ambitious and complex partnership initiative, and its implementation difficulties impose certain limits on the programme.

The Support Network (made up of local 'missions' and information and guidance drop-in centres) constitutes TRACE's core local steering body. This association-type body, which was set up in 1982, is a public service, run by state representatives, local authorities and the social partners. It is coordinated at national level by the Interministerial Youth Employment Commission (Délégation interministérielle à l'insertion des jeunes). Only the state agencies have the authority to carry out the various programmes, but the Support Network provides support for their implementation. The system is based on an all-inclusive approach to young people and their problems and on coordination of local vocational and social insertion stakeholders.

Between the launch of the scheme in October 1998 and June 2001, 100,200 young people went through the programme. Approximately 60% of them had no formal qualifications. The average age of participants was 21. Women slightly outnumbered men and most women had better formal qualifications than the men. Most programme participants had been out of the school system for several years prior to their initial contact with the support network. Most of these young people also already had work experience and roughly three-quarters were registered with the National Employment Agency (Agence Nationale Pour l'Emploi, ANPE).

Major mobilisation of stakeholders

The TRACE programme's major innovation is the individualised relationship between young people and the mentors responsible for tracking them. This is reflected in a significant increase in the number and quality of contacts, as well as a stremgthening of support services. Refocusing the Support Network on young people facing the greatest difficulties - following a major effort by the public employment service to assist those with higher levels of education and who are covered by the 'youth employment-new services' (Nouveaux services-emplois jeunes) programme (FR0106162F) - has ushered in a complete overhaul of practices and a shift away from a rationale of just placing young people in various schemes towards one based more on individualised follow-up and an all-inclusive approach to the young person and his or her problems.

Nevertheless, there has been criticism of TRACE. In terms of the diagnostic process (ie identification of potential participants), the local 'missions' (specialist local agencies) have limited themselves to their own lists of young people, therefore potentially failing to consider others who are in difficulty, but not yet identified by the misions. It is also difficult to assess and rank the degree of urgency of each particular case. While in most regions, training initiatives for sections of the population having difficulty in finding jobs have been boosted (throug the adaptation of timetables, duration and content), and have sometimes been combined with work placements in companies, they have very rarely led to recognised qualifications.

Low level of company involvement

Initial appraisals demonstrate a certain degree of success in terms of access to employment. Of the young people who began the TRACE programme in 1999 and completed it in February 2001, more than half found jobs either in the form of assisted (10.4%) or non-assisted (31.7%) employment, or on combined work/training contracts (8.3%). This performance does not however, guarantee stable career paths for these young people. Little information is available on the quality and stability of the assisted or non-assisted employment obtained at the end of the 18-month period. The almost systematic use under TRACE of the 'employment solidarity contract' (Contrat emploi solidarité) - assisted jobs in the not-for-profit sector offering little prospect of stable employment - demonstrates the difficulty experienced by practitioners in steering young people towards alternative higher-performance initiatives, especially 'youth employment-new services'-type jobs (see above) in the not-for-profit sector and work/training schemes in the for-profit sector. While genuine partnerships do exist, it appears that companies have not fully implemented them. This poor active relationship with the for-profit sector is the major failing of the TRACE programme.

When they 'graduate' from the programme, more than a third (35.2%) of participants end up joining the ranks of the unemployed, with 30.4% receiving no benefits and 4.9% eligible for benefits. Therefore, there is still a distinct possibility that young people will alternate periods of unstable employment with periods of unemployment.

Commentary

The new anti-exclusion programme tabled by the Minister of Employment and Solidarity on the 18 July 2001 doubled the number of places on the TRACE programme and introduced an employment access grant of EUR 300 a month (for a maximum of three months per six-month period), from January 2002, in an attempt to consolidate the financial situation of young people enrolled in the programme during periods of no income. In an attempt to underscore the fact that access to employment is a priority in public policy, the government has reasserted that this assistance does not constitute a minimum wage for young people who are not eligible for 'occupational integration minimum income' (Revenu minimum d'insertion, RMI) benefit. In light of the increase in youth poverty, the issue of financial independence for young people seems to be at the heart of a new, important debate (FR0107169F). (Florence Lefresne, IRES)

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