National conference on youth employment

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In a context of increasingly difficult youth employment in France, and of social tension about what course of action to take, a recent national conference has defined a number of concrete objectives. These seek to secure employment for the most disadvantaged, and to expose students to the world of work for the first time. These aims are based on a series of commitments on the part of industry, Government and the social partners - who remain at odds in their analysis - the effects of which must be monitored.

Access to jobs is increasingly difficult.

In its second report on disparities in employment and income (published on 2 December 1996), the Conseil Supérieur de l'Emploi, des Revenus et des Coûts (National Committee on Employment, Income and Costs) appraises the situation of young French people in the 1990s. Its first finding is that they are obtaining their first jobs later and later. Among the OECD countries, France now has the lowest employment rate among the 20-24 age group (52% compared to an OECD average of 69%). Since 1994 the increase in the length of time spent in education has slowed, but the length of time between the end of education and obtaining the first "real" job has increased noticeably, due to the frequency of unemployment and the development of atypical work.

The second finding is that the distribution of unemployment among young people has changed. In 1996 half of the unemployed people aged below 30 were under 25, compared with 40% in 1990. Furthermore, 20% of young people who graduated from higher education less than five years ago are now unemployed. However, a higher education qualification continues to be a form of protection, as unemployment rates among those holding no such qualification (around 8% of the age group) is more than 50% during the first five years after entering the job market.

The third finding is that disparities are forming between different age groups. Between households with occupants aged from 25 to 29 and those with occupants aged between 50 and 59, the difference in standard of living reached 40% in 1994, compared with 30% in 1989. Young people are the category most affected by the economic downturn. Moreover, the proportion of young people in poverty has grown from 11% to 18% since the beginning of the 1980s (INSEE, the National Institute for Statistics and Economics Studies, considers a household to be poor when income is less than a half of the average).

Mobilisation around five sets of measures

Following two relatively unsuccessful conferences on the subject of youth employment, on 10 February the Prime Minister held a National Conference for Youth Employment which brought together about 60 participants, representatives of trade unions and employers, of local and national government, of chambers of commerce, student unions, family associations and youth employment networks, as well as 13 government Ministers. The teachers' unions were not invited despite the fact that questions of education were a central topic at the conference. The goals decided upon by the Conference revolve around five themes.

  • Expanding work/training programmes. Employers are committed to training 400,000 young people in these programmes, which represents an increase of 20% (compared with 1996) in apprenticeships and of 30% in "qualification-acquisition" contracts of employment (see below). For its part, the Government will reinstate the subsidy for such contracts to a value of FRF 750 million.
  • "Initial work experience modules" in the form of work placements in industry or in the public sector will be offered to students during their Master's degree (see below). Due to come into effect from September 1997, these placements will become an integral part of the University semester and will be based on a three-way agreement between the student, the company and the university. Social security cover and state benefits to which the student is entitled will continue during the work placement and, furthermore, the trainee will receive from the company a "gratuity" which must be equal to 30% of the minimum wage (salaire minimum interprofessionnel de croissance, SMIC).
  • The development of local initiatives will be encouraged through a national fund for the employment of young people based on contracts between the state, local authorities, chambers of commerce and institutions governed jointly by employers and trade unions. This fund will be endowed with FRF 1 billion. Furthermore, a complete decentralisation of loans for the creation of jobs will be tested in six regions. This measure represents FRF 8 billion of a total of FRF 35 billion of public money available for the creation of employment.
  • The 100,000 long-term unemployed young people who have been out of work for over a year, and who represent 17% of the unemployed population under 25 years of age, will be summoned between March and September by the National Employment Agency (Agence Nationale pour l'Emploi,ANPE) and local employment networks, and will be offered employment in industry or in not-for-profit institutions (theoretically 90% of cases) or a vocational training course. The social partners will examine ways of ensuring that programmes combining work and training help to raise the least qualified young people to a suitable level (see below).
  • A quota of young people will be offered employment within the framework of the various schemes providing incentives for employment promotion. In this way, companies which take advantage of public money in order to reduce working hours or introduce progressive early retirement will be obliged to take on two young people for every three new jobs created. Trade unions and management are prepared to ensure that young people make up one in two of the employees that a company must take on within the system of early retirement in exchange for recruitment that they introduced through the UNEDIC (Union Nationale pour l'Emploi dans l'Industrie et le Commerce, National Union for Employment in Trade and Industry) unemployment insurance system.

Responses

At the close of the conference the reactions of the unions and management were noncommital: theCFDT (Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail) recognises the concrete commitments made, but also the need to examine each on a case by case basis. The CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail) made known its reservations on the precarious nature of the employment offered and the disregard by companies for young peoples' adaptation to their first jobs. CGT-FO (Confédération Générale du Travail-Force Ouvrière) underlines that only an economic upturn would solve the problem of employment entirely. The CFTC (Confédération Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens) considers the plans as interesting but as somewhat minor compared to the overall problem of employment. The CGC (Confédération Générale des Cadres) also shares this opinion and recalls its own proposals concerning flexi-time and the reduction of working hours to favour the employment of young people. All things considered, there seems to be a mobilisation on the subject of youth employment but it is as yet impossible to speak of a common policy on which everyone agrees.

Background

Work/training contracts

The main schemes which allow young people to combine training and education with work in a company are as follows

  • apprenticeship, arising from legislation introduced in 1971, under which the responsibility of training the apprentice is given over to the company (ie, the apprentice must be enrolled in one of the training centres run by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry). Apprenticeship must lead to a diploma specified or approved by the Ministry of Education. The development of apprenticeship is connected in particular to its sectoral diversification, as it is still strongly linked in peoples' minds to manual trades such as construction and repair, and to small businesses. Development depends on building up a vocational training programme for those young people not really suited to full-time education; and
  • the qualification programme (contrat de qualification, CQ) established by a 1983 intersectoral agreement, concerns young people aged between 16 and 25 with either nil or unsuitable qualifications. It includes a period of training outside the company (at least 25% of the contract is to be spent in a public or private educational establishment), and is designed either for obtaining diplomas or degrees recognised by the state, or a qualification recognised by the sector or by a collective agreement. Surveys show that young people passing through a qualification programme have generally a much higher chance of finding work than those who have gone through a different programme. This result can be explained by the very nature of the programme, but also by the fact that the standard of students recruited is becoming higher and higher. Thus, there is no longer room for young people with weaker educational backgrounds, a fact which justifies the adoption of a fourth set of measures.

Work placements

The idea of the "pre-graduation work placement" (stage diplômant) in a company, launched by the president of the social committee of the CNPF (Conseil National du Patronat Francais, the main employers' organisation) at the beginning of December 1996, has given rise to heated debate.

Student and teacher bodies, together with a large number of trade unions, have emphasised the risk of creating a new type of precarious employment among young people. This assessment makes explicit reference to the "youth employment contract" (Contrat d'Insertion Professionnelle, CIP), designed for young graduates of vocational training colleges, which provided for a specific 12-month contract of employment with a salary equal to 80% of the SMIC, but without any fixed form of training. The CIP was rejected after massive strikes and demonstrations in March 1994. Criticisms of the CNPF proposal stresses the "deadweight effect" dimension for companies, particularly if the length of the work placements proposed (nine months) is taken into account. Furthermore, the lack of a contract of employment appears to be a means of bypassing labour law and the minimum wage.

However, the fact that the proposal is aimed at Master's students on general courses would suggest that it should be interpreted differently - ie, as opening general training programmes to industry. It involves the integration of these work placements into the university programme and it is not therefore simply aiming at immediate employment but rather at obtaining initial work experience on a voluntary basis for people who are normally kept at arms' length from industry (with the exception of certain programmes such as business schools, law schools, medical schools and teaching colleges). The existence of double supervision and the recognition of the work placement by both the company and the university would favour a new type of partnership with regard to the conception of general education programmes.

However, if at the outcome of the National Conference on Youth Employment, the second interpretation seems to have prevailed among delegates, some important questions remain unanswered, in particular those concerning the content of work placements. Hence the idea is emerging of a national charter, which is to be formulated as early as April. (Florence Lefresne, IRES)

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