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.

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“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.

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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 personal 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.