I once had a friend, who, sadly, died only a year after retirement. He was a superb craftsman and ran a small boat building and repairing business in Brittany. He was able to shape wood or fibreglass so that every part looked perfect - a true professional. He told me more than once that he was able to assess every young recruit within a few days of them starting work and tell whether they were gifted for manual work or not. With those who passed muster he was generous with his time and advice, but he was also quick to discourage those he felt would never find fulfilment in manual work. Most of the youngsters he encouraged stayed on in the business and one even went on to set up a similar company in another part of Brittany. Without realising it, they had been given an excellent start to their career by benefiting from the shrewd assessment and generous mentoring of an experienced professional at just the right time.
All this comes back into memory as I listen to the endless debates about President Macron’s promised and much needed reform of France’s byzantine system of vocational training, apprenticeships and unemployment insurance. It has long been a mantra of politicians that France needs to reform its vocational training system to bring down high employment, especially youth unemployment, by giving young people the skills they need to get a job or retrain those whose job has been lost. It sounds simple but, like most things in an advanced industrial economy, and particularly in France, it isn’t.
Take the school system to start with. Not so many years go, kids who did not do well in school were weeded out early and ended up in unskilled jobs on a farm, in a factory or in a shop. Soon after I first came to France, over 40 years ago, I did a stint of teaching at a “collège” (for kids up to the age of about 16) in a small provincial town. At the end of their compulsory schooling, pupils, especially girls, who were not considered academic were told, pretty dismissively after the final class assessment, that they would do better to leave school and look for a job. At the time, jobs were more easily found – even for the unqualified. Today most jobs require minimum levels of competence to work with modern technological tools. Recognising this, the monolithic Education Nationale has, over the years, introduced alternative paths to the baccalauréat, (high school leaving exam) for those whose academic performance has not been stellar. Pupils who are not deemed academic enough to do a general baccalauréat (in maths and science, literature or social studies) are directed towards these alternative, vocationally oriented, courses, supposed to equip them with the skills required for the jobs market or some form of higher education. And yet it is still the case, despite the huge changes that have taken place in society and the economy that those who are not considered “academic” at school still carry a stigma of failure as they take up these alternative baccalauréats, widely considered as second best solutions for the ungifted. The system does ensure that 80% of any given age group pass some form of baccalauréat. However, many consider that vocational subjects suffer from teaching that is overly academic, an inadequate level of out-dated resources, little regard for employability and are therefore ill matched to the skills required for the labour market. But then schools and those who run them have always defended the view that their primary task is to educate pupils to be well-rounded citizens, and not be too distracted from this noble mission by designing and delivering training for commerce or industry.
In contrast to all this, it should not be forgotten that France boasts a number of very selective but world-class higher institutes of learning and training. For those who do well in high school, elite engineering and business academies beckon, opening up prospects of responsible and highly paid jobs all over the world. Graduates from the famous Polytechnique and the elite engineering schools (Ecole des Mines and Ecole de Ponts et Chaussées) for instance, or top business schools, are among the best and the brightest anywhere. But the impact on society, as a famous French journalist, Pierre Viansson-Ponté, wrote many years ago, is that “France chooses its future elites on the basis of their excellence in mathematics”. It was only a slight exaggeration at the time and not much has changed since.
In other words, the French education and training system works well, even very well, for the select few who are able to meet such exacting requirements. It works a lot less well for many others with different talents that are not always identified and nurtured at school. If high school students pass any baccalauréat, they can claim, without further ado, a place at a state-run university charging no tuition fees, regardless of their school record or job prospects. They roundly reject any attempt at “selection “, because university is seen as the default choice for further training, even though only about 50% succeed in their first undergraduate year.
This state of affairs is exactly what Macron’s bold attempt at reform is supposed to remedy: change attitudes towards apprenticeships and vocational training; identify areas that require skills and ensure that relevant training courses are on offer to provide them; identify pupils who are likely to benefit from such opportunities, even if they have a patchy school record; retrain employees who need to upgrade their skills or learn new ones, paid for in many cases by their “individual training account”, a welcome innovation introduced by a previous government three years ago.
And it is not as if the money to fund such an effort is not there, not to speak of the savings that could be made if more of those who are entitled to claim a place at university decided to opt for more promising avenues towards employment. All companies are required by law to pay contributions towards training and there are plenty of central and local government bodies that are supposed to dispense and oversee it. The trouble is that the whole system has become mired in bureaucracy, content, like most bureaucracies, to observe the letter of the law rather than its spirit. Money is directed towards training by numerous committees made up of employers, trade unions and civil servants. Vocational training for adults is doled out by over 65 000 registered providers. There is precious little individual counselling and practically no evaluation of what works and what doesn’t. The input of individual businesses, when it is requested, tends to be cancelled out by the dead hand of the Education Nationale. The unqualified and long-term unemployed vegetate on the sidelines.
President Macron’s purported reforms, now being discussed with all the parties involved, sound promising, but a lot will depend on how they are presented and if the inevitable resistances can be overcome. And there will be plenty of resistance on the part of the many and various bodies that hold the power and the purse strings in the current system. Three years ago for instance, as part of a regional reform programme, regional authorities were given, on paper, the responsibility for vocational training in order to bring it closer to local employment requirements. Since then, bureaucratic confusion and infighting has ensued and above all, the Education Nationale is quietly resisting any attempt to take training for the young out of its remit. While there is a lot to be said for the idea of giving all children a well-rounded education and preparing them for citizenship, there is surely the need, in a country with one of the highest unemployment rates in the EU, for a new balance to be struck, so that attractive and promising vocational training opportunities can be brought to those whose talents are suited to them, young and less young. After all, a fulfilling job also makes for happier employees, more stable families and a better society in general.
Whatever new arrangements are eventually put in place, they will of course be light years away from the simple but effective method instinctively applied by my deceased friend in Brittany. But there are nevertheless small, everyday signs of hope that the deep culture may be changing. The other day, in the garage to which I had taken my car for servicing, I spotted a youngster working on a car engine. “Got an apprentice?” I asked the owner. “Yes”, he said, “he’s on a vocational training course, one week here, one week in school, doing well, likes the job. Nice to see a youngster like that getting stuck in.”
France certainly needs a lot more of them.