France looks to education to help solve youth unemployment woes

Amid growing concerns about the economic situation of its young people, France is looking to the education sector to help address the country’s high youth unemployment rate.

Youth unemployment reached 26% in France last year, a figure that is less worrisome than Spain’s rate of over 56%, but still significantly higher than in the UK where youth unemployment stands at almost 21%.

The rate of joblessness among French youth is also more than double that of the unemployment rate in the French population overall, which reached a 14-year high of 10.6% in 2013. Perhaps even more disconcerting, the unemployment rate among French youths aged 20-24 hasn’t dropped below 16% in almost 30 years, suggesting that an entire generation has been affected by high unemployment.

Major skills gaps observed

According to Education to Employment: Getting Europe’s youth into work, a report by the McKinsey Center for Government, one of the factors affecting France’s youth unemployment rate is the younger population’s distrust toward the education system in general:

“…McKinsey describes French youngsters as the ‘non believers’ in the education system or the ‘disillusioned’ who would like to continue studying but do not have the means to do so.”

Over the past decade, educational inequalities have been widening in France, due to a decline in the results of the most highly disadvantaged students.

But some corporate leaders are saying that even youths who do have access to higher education aren’t graduating with a relevant skill set because university courses place too much emphasis on “narrow academic knowledge.” As recently reported in the Times Higher Education:

“French employers also grumble that university graduates do not acquire skills that are transferable to the workplace. They say that candidates lack vital soft skills, such as IT qualifications, knowledge of English and presentation or project management skills.”

This evidence of a skills gap is also echoed in other recent reports and surveys:

  • The McKinsey report similarly found that French young people often lack self-confidence and communication skills, according to employers;
  • A global language survey released late last year by Education First (EF) found that in contrast to most European states, English proficiency declined in France over the survey period;
  • A poll by the French Association of Software Publishers and Internet Solutions (AFDEL) found that 72% of software firms have trouble recruiting.

Indeed, although significant numbers of French youth may be looking for work, 35% of French employers say they can’t find young people with the right skills, a shortcoming that is a serious business issue. For 28% of employers it is a common reason why vacancies remain unfilled.

Education seen as a big part of the solution

In an attempt to narrow the gap between universities and the corporate sector – and get more youths working – the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research has created an advisory group on curriculum reform. Launched in December of last year, “Sup’Emploi” is comprised of representatives from higher education and business, and is tasked with developing guidelines to help universities adapt to the needs of a changing economy. At the time of the group’s launch, the French minister for higher education, Geneviève Fioraso, said:

“We have to anticipate the changing business needs and not always play catch-up; that’s why we have to work together with French companies.”

Minister Fioraso has also said that France would like to see its universities transform inventions in their labs into innovations that create jobs; the country ranks between 20th and 25th globally when it comes to innovation.

In pursuit of this goal, the Minister announced additional funding for France’s new MOOC platform, the France Université Numérique (FUN), last month. Launched in October, FUN has scaled quickly to a user base of nearly 90,000 students. Minister Fioraso has committed an additional €8 million (US $11 million) for 2014 (in addition to an initial investment of €12 million in the FUN platform) for further expansion of professional training programmes as well as technological infrastructure.

More recently, the French government has expressed this determination to boost innovation in the country through the announcement of a €2 billion (US $2.7 billion) investment in expanding a network of regional research centres throughout the country. The funding will provide for between three and five new centres – known as “Initiatives of Excellence”, or Idex – in addition to the eight current Idex centres in Bordeaux, Marseille, Strasbourg, Toulouse, and Paris.

Private investors stepping in

But others stakeholders who are concerned about France’s “skills mismatch” are bypassing the traditional education system altogether. Last year, Xavier Niel (the founder of broadband firm Ilia) and a group of French entrepreneurs launched 42, a new school for software developers that its founders describe as a response to “an educational system that is no longer capable of training the talent that is required by companies in the new technologies field.”

Privately financed (Mr Niel is investing €70 million or US $92 million), the 42 school is free for students, and open to applicants based on their demonstrated talent and motivation, not their educational degree or any formal requirements. Although students at 42 will not receive any state-recognised diploma and are warned that they will have to “work hard,” the school received 50,000 applications for 1,000 places in its first year.

According to The Economist, the demand for schools such as 42 is being driven by two factors:

“First, 42 aims to unearth talent in the banlieues, or poor suburbs, and other places that do not fit into the French academic mould. Even though France’s school system is designed to be meritocratic, the country is experiencing a worrying fall in social mobility. According to the OECD, a rich-country think-tank, socio-economic background has a greater impact on educational performance in France than in most other countries.”

But 42’s teaching methods are also a draw. The school’s emphasis on self-learning and encouraging creativity is seen by some as a much-needed antidote to an education system that successfully instills knowledge in students, but also reinforces pessimism and the wrong frame of mind.

According to a recent Eurostat survey, the French are the second most insecure in Europe when it comes to appraising their proficiency in English. David Stenning, director of Interface Business Languages in Paris, attributes this lack of self-confidence to French people’s schooling:

“The French school system is built around negativity. There’s lots of telling pupils off and putting them down and in the end they come out of it believing they are bad at languages.”

With perceptions such as these in the air, the Sup’Emploi advisory group’s task of reforming curriculum may not be an easy one. Look for the group to release its first set of recommendations in the spring.



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