FRANCE. As youth unemployment continues to rise the government is moving towards reforming the apprenticeship system.
During his new year broadcast, President Chirac cited job creation as his chief preoccupation, and hoped that 1996 would see a "negotiated collective agreement for a system of reduced working hours" which would help young people to enter the job market.
Three days later, Jacques Barrot, minister for labour and social affairs, introduced a bill to tidy up the overburdened financial mechanism of the apprenticeship system and to increase take-up.
Currently companies who take on apprentices qualify for subsidies which average 16,000 francs (Pounds 2,100) a year for each person. These are paid for by the regions.
But with rising numbers of school-leavers opting for the two-year scheme - 170,000 joined in 1995, bringing the total to almost 300,000 - the system's finances are are in danger of collapse. An official report found that running costs of the Centres for Training of Apprentices (CFA) rose to more than FF5bn last year.
M Barrot's bill proposes replacing the present hotch-potch of subsidies with one payment averaging FF13,000 a year for each apprentice; and it will restore some financial responsibility to the state. The government aims to raise the number of apprentices to 200,000 this year.
The scheme is open to 16 to 26-year-olds. They must work at least 400 hours a year in a CFA, 1,500 hours if preparing for a vocational baccalaureat or higher qualification. Apprentices earn between 25 and 78 per cent of the minimum wage. The numbers choosing an apprenticeship have been rising since 1993 to the highest level since 1968, according to a ministry of education report.
The educational level of recruits has also risen since 1992, and the range of qualifications they are working towards is more varied. While the majority are still preparing for a CAP, the basic vocational certificate, others are taking the apprenticeship road towards a diploma, perhaps in engineering, equivalent to the baccalaureat plus four or five years' higher studies.
However, research carried out by the ministries of education and employment found that more than a quarter of apprentices drop out - a rate much higher than other work-experience training schemes.
Even those apprentices who complete their course are likely to face difficulties finding work when they qualify. Depending on the level of their diploma, between 17 per cent (with the highest qualification) and 38 per cent (with the lowest) are without a job. In total, 600,000 under-25s are unemployed.