France: Government unveils plans for reform of apprenticeship system

The French government has introduced a plan for the wide-scale reform of apprenticeship programmes in February 2018 that gives professional organisations a greater role in defining the content and number of training courses. The social partners, particularly employers, have welcomed the reform, which is aimed at better matching the programmes with the needs of companies.

Background

In setting out the reform, the government considered the fact that the apprenticeship system allows young people to attend courses at an apprentice training centre (CFA) rather than onsite training, leaving the employer underutilised. Around 400,000 young people are currently involved in the apprenticeship system (about 7% of young people between the ages of 16 and 25 years) and the government wants to increase this number to help reduce youth unemployment (20.7% in the fourth quarter of 2018): apprenticeships are very successful in integrating young people into the labour market. On 30 January 2018, after consultation with the social partners and the regions piloting the new apprenticeship system, the government presented its report (PDF) containing 44 recommendations for reforming the apprenticeship system. The report is the basis for the government’s apprenticeship reform bill (PDF) to be introduced in mid-April and adopted by parliament – summer 2018.

Making learning more attractive to young people

The plan is to increase the age limit for starting an apprenticeship from 26 to 30 years, guaranteeing people in this age bracket the same wage as the statutory minimum for people over 26. The remuneration of younger apprentices, set according to age and seniority in the scheme, will be increased by €30. Apprentices will also be able to receive, from the age of 18 years, a flat-rate grant of €500 to help them pass their driving test.

Making it easier for employers to hire apprentices

Companies with fewer than 250 employees will be able to receive a one-off subsidy of €6,000 over two years to hire apprentices and will be able to hire them throughout the year, instead of just at the beginning of the school year. Employers will also contribute 0.85% of their payroll to fund apprenticeships. The rules surrounding the termination of apprenticeship contracts will also simplified.

A central role for professional branches

One of the big changes is that the diplomas will be defined by the state and the individual professional organisations, which will draft the activity and skills criteria for each diploma. The government says diplomas will be more in line with the skills needs of companies and created more quickly.

Reactions of the social partners

Employers have welcomed this reform, with the largest employer federation, the Movement of the Enterprises of France (Medef) calling it a pragmatic, ambitious and credible plan that clarifies the responsibilities of those involved, while the Confederation of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (CPME) called it a mini revolution ‘in which the company is clearly placed at the heart of the learning experience’, and the Union of Local Businesses (U2P) hailed the government’s willingness to undertake a fundamental reform of the apprenticeship system.

The unions, however, were slightly more muted. The French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) was, overall, satisfied with the measures, but suggested that help with housing, transport and the purchase of equipment should accompany the reform. While the French Confederation of Christian Workers (CFTC) was pleased to have their needs acknowledged, the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) attacked the government’s communication and decision making process.

Commentary

This initiative is part of a vast reform of the French labour market, which started with changes to labour law in November 2017, and has continued with a reform of vocational training and unemployment insurance (the social partners have already reached two separate agreements on this, but the challenge here is whether the government will be satisfied with this, or whether it intends to intervene directly, reducing the role of the social partners in the management of the unemployment scheme).

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