France’s personal training accounts were a great idea – what is going wrong?

When the French government introduced its personal training account (CPF, compte personnel de formation) scheme in early 2015, it was in the hope of promoting an upsurge in reskilling. Yet according to a recent survey, less than a third of workers have opened up their online account, almost a quarter say they haven’t heard of the scheme, and only 7.2% have benefited from training under the scheme. What has gone wrong?

New Picture (3)

First, I should make clear that the survey shows signs of progress. While only 31% said they’d activated their account in the 2018 survey, that is up on a mere 20% in the previous year. Those who benefited have risen from 3.6% last year.

Still, compared with the government’s ambitions, these figures are sobering. They also contrast with the popularity of similar systems elsewhere; whatever you think of the British Individual Learning Accounts, they were certainly widely used. And to me, the idea of time off work to train with costs paid should be pretty appealing.

I don’t know why the CPF has failed so far to take off. It was well-publicised, and it is a reasonably generous scheme. Jobs are changing in France as elsewhere, and ever more will be affected as a result of digitiation, AI, and other tech changes, so upskilling makes sense for enterprises and individuals.

Perhaps it’s just that the accounts are simply unattractive to French workers? Or maybe the scheme is over-bureaucratic? If you know more, please let us all know!

 

 

Promoting civic engagement through learning accounts

I’ve been taking a keen interest in the French system of personal learning accounts. Like other similar systems elsewhere, it seems to me a model of how to incentivise learning – at least as an experience which could hold lessons for the rest of us. And it is also being used to promote active citizenship.

compte citoyen

The labour law of 8 August 2016 introduced a new system for incentivising civic engagement, the compte d’engagement citoyen (CEC), which enables the recognition of specified types of civic activity throughout the life course, accompanied by support for relevant education, with the applicant accessing funding through their compte personnel de formation (CPF).

The CEC covers eight types of volunteering:

  • National civic service (the alternative to military service, now suspended)
  • Military reserve service
  • Police reserve service
  • Health reserve service
  • Master apprentice service
  • Service of at least 200 hours a year to a registered association
  • Voluntary fire brigade service
  • Service in the national or regional civic reserve

The first I heard of the CEC was when I read this summer that the French legislature had criticised delays in the IT system supporting it. The MPs also called on the government to remedy inequalities of access, sort out anomalies such as the exclusion of first aid training, and extend the education provision to retired people who volunteer.

The introduction of the CEC runs parallel to another new scheme for young people, of national universal service. Reflecting one of President Macron’s campaign pledges, the scheme is currently being piloted, and if all goes well it will require all French youth to complete a month of civic action followed up with a further period of systematic voluntary civil or military activity. I’ll post a more detailed description of this scheme soon.

So this is an interesting approach to promoting active citizenship through adult learning, and I look forward to seeing some serious analysis of its effects. At this stage the system seems to me to be admirable in principle, if rather bureaucratic to access and restrictive in scope, but that is an early perspective from an outsider.

Meanwhile, if you want to know more about the French approach to learning accounts, you can find my earlier posts on the CPF here:

Lifelong learning and the age of automation

The Economist Intelligence Unit has compiled an Automation Readiness Index, which it says is designed to compare ‘how well-prepared 25 countries are for the challenges and opportunities of intelligent automation’.

automation

I think the study while flawed is nevertheless interesting. The participating countries were selected on a variety of grounds; they include the world’s largest economies, along with others selected on the basis of relevance (Estonia and Singapore were judged to demonstrate key good practices) and geography (four countries representing ‘key emerging economies from Latin America, South-east Asia, and the Middle East’).

The selected indicators and associated metrics make for interesting reading. There are 52 indicators, divided into three broad categories: innovation environment, education policies, and labour market policies, with weightings that favour the first two over the third.In each domain, the researchers drew on their judgements of qualitative evidence (however, I can’t find much about how they did this) as well as on available quantitative data.

There will always be questions about the fit between published data and what it might claim to measure. For example, within the education cluster the researchers evaluated ‘continuous education’ on the basis of ‘the existence of national lifelong learning programmes’ and ‘financial support for lifelong learning’. Within the labour market cluster, they judged ‘targeted retraining’ on the basis of ‘Existence of retraining programmes for displaced workers focusing on transition to high-demand sectors’.

So there are some obvious definitional questions, as well as a degree of subjectivity in how these criteria are evaluated. Among areas missing or neglected, I’m articularly struck by the absence of any interest in how well the wider public is informed about digitization and artificial intellegence, or in which skills will likely be in demand as a result of automation (though the study did look at the role of social dialogue on the future of work in general).

The findings are nevertheless interesting, if not generally very surprising. For example, although the UK is placed 8th overall, it is 10th in respect of continuous education and the researchers conclude that ‘the country could do more to support lifelong learning, in particular, to boost its rank in education policy’. The authors seem articularly interested in measures designed to promote individual demand for learning, such as the individual learning accounts that have been adopted in Singapore and France in recent years.

In short, then, no surprises here but some useful food for thought. In particular, the report reinforces my belief that individual learning accounts remain the best available option for raising demand for learning, particularly among under-represented groups of learner; and it also confirms that countries which aim to take advantage of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ need to include lifelong learning as an integral feature of their strategy.

Funding learning through training accounts: what French workers study

In 2015, the French government introduced an entitlement of up to 150 hours of free tuition with paid leave from work for all those active in the labour market. Workers had to select from a wide range of approved courses, all of which had to lead to the award of  a recognised qualification. The system has been tweaked since then, but the compte personnel de formation (CPF, personal training account) system now seems to have settled down.

cpf

The Ministère du Travail has now released the list of certificates taken most frequently by workers in 2017 using their CPF. The top five are:

  1. Test of English for International Communication
  2. BULATS Business Language Testing Service
  3. Certificat de connaissance et compétences professionelles, which largely assesses existing learning
  4. Passeport de compétences informatique Européen, known elsewhere as the European Computer Driving Licence
  5. TOSA, a test which allows you to assess your computing and digital skills

The first thing to say is that these are mainly tests or examinations. The routes by which people progress towards the certificates will vary enormously, but as the CPF gives you paid leave to learn, presumably they will involve attendance at courses of some kind.

Second, two topics stand out: the importance of language and computing are both very clear. Both can be understood as involving skills and knowledge that workers hope can help protect employment security at a time of globalisation and tech change. Of course, other topics also attract large numbers of participants: specialist driving certificates and a mandatory management qualification make it into the top ten.

So far, the CPF seems to have been free from the misuse that scuppered Individual Learning Accounts in England. Central regulation of approved qualifications clearly has some benefits. Looking at these topics, though, it seems very likely that the CPF is being used to fund training that would have taken place anyway, or is even producing more people with some qualifications than the labour market requires. Finally, I’m not clear how the CPF impacts on equity and inclusion; if it has positive effects in this domain, then that can be set in the balance as well.

Funding adult skills in France: here comes the ‘big bang’

Considerable controversy has surrounded President Macron’s plans for labour reform in France, especially measures designed to promote labour flexibility and limit trade union powers. Less widely reported are parallel interventions to promote skills and learning, but this is where the focus is now moving.

The politician responsible for the labour reforms is Muriel Pénicaud, an experienced human resources manager who became Minister of Labour in May 2017. After completing her first set of labour reforms last year, Pénicaud has turned her attention to training and skills, an area where she (and Macron) believe existing French policies to be antiquated and inefficient.

New Picture

“The training system is neither fair nor equitable”: unequal participation

On 5 March, the Minister announced the long-awaited content of her reforms, claiming that they had been ‘largely’ agreed with employers and unions. Above all, there are new arrangements for personal training accounts, or compte personnel de formation: whereas the old system was counted in time, the new entitlement will be calculated in cash, with the funds being collected through the social insurance system. Each individual employee’s account will be credited with €500 a year, capped at a total of €5,000; those with low skills will have a higher sum of €800 a year, capped at €8,000.

Further changes will bring part-time workers into the system, as well as absorbing the congé individuel de formation (CIF) into the CFP. A new tripartite agency, France compétences, will regulate the training costs and scrutinise quality, to avoid the kind of malpractice that dogged the initial foray into learning accounts in England and that has marred the CPF to date.

How much of this will happen is another matter. France’s unions and employers’ associations responded with their own counter-proposals. Pénicaud has initially dismissed these as too modest and conservative, arguing that what was needed was les incremental change than a ‘big bang’ (the French for which turns out to be – yes, big bang) which combined radical reform with a simplification of a complex and inefficient status quo.

Pénicaud’s ‘big bang’ also extends to other areas of skills pilicy. She is in discussion with social partners over how to improve skills levels among the unemployed, and has initiated discussions on an overhaul and expansion of the apprenticeship system. Taken together, these reforms will unsettle relationships not only with the unions buts also with employers’ organisations and France’s powerful regional governments. The outcome is still uncertain, but I’m backing Pénicaud to win.

Personal training accounts – supporting adult skills in France

The new system explained (with beret, naturellement). From www.senat.fr

The new system explained (avec beret, naturellement). From http://www.senat.fr

This month saw the introduction of a new way of supporting adult learning in France. The new ‘compte personnel de formation’ (CPF), or personnel training account, is based on the principle of a time bank, which starts when you enter the labour market and continues through your working life.

The new CPF affects all those active in the labour market – workers, job-seekers and apprentices. Essentially it provides for an entitlement of up to 150 hours of free tuition with paid leave from work, accumulated over an eight-year period. Previously, the law guaranteed 120 hours, accumulated over two years, and to be used within six years.

Inevitably there are restrictions on what can be studied, with a centrally-determined list of 3,881 eligible forms of training at different levels, reflecting the government’s priority of supporting ‘short-to-mid-term economic needs’. And there is a requirement for certification, whether through a recognised qualification or through the national system for accrediting vocational learning (validation des acquis professionels). And in order to receive paid leave, you must apply at least 60 days before the course begins.

If these criteria are met, the employer must agree to let you attend. The costs – including travel and subsistence – are met by what looks to me very much like a training levy on employers, administered by a body agreed by the employers and the trade unions which also meets half of your salary costs while away from work.

This interesting system was introduced under France’s law on vocational training, employment and social democracy, and it replaces the earlier system known as ‘droit individuel a formation’ (DIF, individual right to train). It is, of course, too early to say how the system will work, but it has been generally welcomed by workers’ representatives as offering wider choice and greater control, and a recent survey estimated that 74% of workers intended to take it up.

In one respect, though CPF isn’t working as well as the old DIF. The central body charged with drawing up the list of eligible courses apparently ‘forgot’ to include languages. As 30% of requests for DIF involved English language learning, this came as something of a shock, but it is apparently in the course of being remedied.

Otherwise, this looks like a really worthwhile reform. I hope that policy makers in other European countries, and those who represent adult learners, are watching the CPF with lively interest.