SPL, France: Fostering employability
SPL, a SME producing pallets in the north of France, has introduced an initiative for some of its employees to allow them to start a process of work-experience certification (VAE, a scheme introduced into French law in 2002). The initiative was implemented with the support of the regional agency for the improvement of working conditions (ARACT). It is a good example of what a SME can do to allow workers to really benefit from VAE.
SPL is a SME located in the north of France. Its activities are sawmilling and the production of pallets. The company operates in a very specific market and produces high-quality products. It is thus forced to comply with very short delivery deadlines (about 48 hours) for customers located in the same region. SPL employs 70 workers, 30 of whom are employed under open-ended contracts. SPL has particular legal statutes, since it is a SCOP (société coopérative ouvrière de production), i.e. a cooperative enterprise where the employees hold the majority of the company’s share capital. Therefore, all of the 30 employees under open-ended contracts are shareholders. The company also takes part in the integration of people at risk of exclusion (named ‘entreprise d’insertion’ in French) and therefore employs 40 workers at risk of exclusion under atypical fixed-term contracts. One should note that workers benefiting from an open-ended contract were formerly employed under atypical fixed-term contracts. The number of women employed is low: just four women employed in administrative tasks. Other workers are posted to three different activities: sawmill, assembly of pallets and transport. Social dialogue is implemented under specific legal statutes of the company. A committee meeting of management and employees, who are also shareholders, is held every two months.
Description of the initiative
The initiative implemented by the company consists of a collective support scheme provided to some of its employees in order to allow them to obtain a diploma and certificate through VAE. VAE (validation des acquis de l’expérience – certification from work-derived experience), is a process introduced into French law in 2002 which allows people to make their professional skills recognised by obtaining an official certification provided either by the Ministry of Labour or the Department of Education. At the beginning of 2004, the company benefited from the support of an external consultant in order to improve both productivity and human resources management. The consultant recommended developing quality and automation processes within the company. To that extent, the need to provide training to workers arose in order to adapt them to these technological changes. The training was targeted at workers employed under atypical fixed-term contracts. The manager and founder of the company then decided to complete the planned scheme and to start a VAE approach targeted at workers employed under open-ended contracts. This proposal was discussed through the committee described above. The regional agency for improvement of working conditions (ARACT) was responsible for managing the whole process on the basis of its missions as defined by an agreement between the government and northern region. ARACT proposed to support the company through a consultant to implement a quality process on the one hand and a collective support to workers to prepare the VAE on the other.
In September 2004, a meeting between the company’s human resources department and ARACT aimed at defining the categories of workers to be supported. As truck drivers already had official certification of their professional skills, they decided to focus the support on forklift truck operators and drivers. Three groups gathering voluntary workers were then set up, with four workers in each group. They met three times during working hours, with a consultant from ARACT in charge of the support. The aim of the working groups was to reveal the professional skills of the workers concerned in order to find the certifications available for them. To achieve these objectives, ARACT questioned workers about their working environment, the tools they used and the process of production. However, it quickly became apparent that workers encountered great difficulties in describing their daily work. Therefore, ARACT organised direct observations of employees while they were working. On the basis of these observations, the consultant drew up diagrams and then a report summarising the skills of the different workers involved in the process. The report was submitted to workers and validated by them during the third meeting of the working groups. At the same time, ARACT identified relevant contacts within bodies in charge of VAE, i.e. the Department of Education and the Ministry of Labour. The report describing the workers’ skills was then sent to those bodies. Proposals for possible diplomas and certifications were made to the company. Employees were then invited to start an individual process of VAE. It is worth highlighting that the Department of Education provided support to the voluntary workers, i.e. workshops aiming to improve their writing skills.
When introduced into French law, VAE was considered as a way to improve the employability of workers both within and outside the company. VAE is an individual right for each worker to make his work-derived experience recognised by obtaining an official diploma or certification from public authorities. The process thus requires that workers can prepare an application precisely summarising their skills in order to submit it to a board of examiners. Before being analysed by a jury, the application has to be considered as admissible by the competent public authority. If this is the case, the jury then decides whether the skills described correspond to the conditions outlined by the diploma or certificate considered. All these requirements presuppose that workers are able to describe their work, find a relevant diploma and write an application. This is especially difficult for an individual, especially a low-qualified worker. Therefore, An initiative was proposed by the company’s manager, a person highly involved in social issues such as integration into the labour market. The support provided allowed employees to identify and formalise their skills and also to define which diploma is relevant for them. The intervention of an external consultant from ARACT and the method used of combining working groups and direct observations of work carried out allowed the employees’ skills to be revealed and therefore to give them the opportunity to start a VAE process. The support obtained by the company and the consultant from the Department of Education also contributed to this objective by giving employees the means to improve their writing skills, which can be a very important factor in successfully achieving a VAE. Moreover, it was necessary to search for relevant diplomas and certifications corresponding to workers’ skills. In that regard, the intervention of ARACT was helpful, considering the numerous existing certificates and diplomas as well as the complexity of French administrative organisation. The initiative was launched when no threat of restructuring existed at company level. Therefore, the employees concerned were rather neutral when the initiative was presented by the management but quickly came to believe that VAE could be an excellent opportunity deserving of further consideration.
Exemplary and contextual factors
Considering the conditions planned to achieve VAE, it is very difficult for workers, especially low-qualified workers, to implement such a project alone. What is interesting here is that SPL has set up a collective support to some of its workers. Such an initiative is exemplary considering the informal work organisation of a SME: in a competitive context, workers are to carry out many different tasks to answer to the company’s needs. Therefore, revealing and formalising all the skills acquired is a challenge, despite the fact that it is absolutely necessary to start a VAE. In addition, the initiative took place without any external pressure. It is clearly a good example of what can be done by a company to support employees who want to start a VAE. (For a general study related to VAE, especially in SME, see http://www.travail.gouv.fr/dossiers/formation-professionnelle/validation-acquis-experience-vae/rapport-vae-dans-les-entreprises-un-atout-collectif-3254.html.)
Christophe Tessier, Université européenne du travail, Paris