Young and educated in France find long-term employment elusive

There is growing concern in Western Europe that the ‘floating generation’ will become the ‘lost generation’ as they move from one short-term job to another, unable to find permanent work and with significant numbers having given up looking

By Steven Erlanger  /  NY Times News Service, LILLE, France

Thu, Dec 06, 2012 - Page 9

Justine Forriez wakes up early to go onto the computer to look for a job. She calls university friends and contacts; she goes to the unemployment office every week — though mostly for the companionship — and has taken a course in job hunting. She has met with 10 different recruiters since May and sent out 200 resumes.

Forriez is not poor or disadvantaged and she holds a master’s degree in health administration. However, after a two-year apprenticeship, she is living on state aid and working at off-the-books jobs like babysitting and bar tending. She cares for a dog for US$6.50 a day. She paints watercolors in her spare time to keep herself from going crazy.

“I don’t feel at ease when I’m home,” she said. “You find yourself with no work, no project.”

With the extra US$45 for dog sitting, she said, “I can go to the grocery store.”

Forriez, 23, is part of a growing problem in France and other low-growth countries of Europe — the young and educated unemployed, who go from one internship to another, one short-term contract to another, but who cannot find a permanent job that gets them on the path to the taxpaying, property-owning French ideal that seemed the norm for decades.

This is a “floating generation,” in a situation made worse by the euro crisis, and its plight is widely seen as a failure of the system: An elitist educational tradition that does not integrate graduates into the workforce; a rigid labor market that is hard to enter; and a tax system that makes it expensive for companies to hire full-time employees and both difficult and expensive to lay them off.

The result, analysts and officials agree, is a new and growing sector of educated unemployed, whose lives are delayed and whose inability to find good jobs damages tax receipts, pension programs and the property market. There are no separate figures kept for them, but when added to the large number of unemployed young people who have little education or training, there is a growing sense that France and other countries in Western Europe risk losing a generation, further damaging prospects for sustainable economic growth.

Louise Charlet, 25, has a master’s degree in management. She worked as an apprentice at the Kiabi clothing company for more than two years, but was not given a permanent job; she’s also worked for three months at a hotel. She prowls the Internet for job offers, goes to the unemployment office and lives with her unemployed boyfriend in a neat, tiny apartment.

“You see,” she said, pointing to the computer, “there’s only one job offer today, and it’s a temporary contract.”

The crisis makes companies doubly reluctant to hire, she said.

“In our parents’ generation, you had a job for life; now we constantly have to change jobs, change companies, change regions,” she said.

Yasmine Askri, 26, majored in human resources and after a year of unemployment, she got a business school degree. She was promised a fixed contract after an internship, but it never came. She left the Lille area for Paris to find a job and spent another year unemployed, finally finding an interim job for 18 months at GDF Suez. However, that contract ended in June. Again unemployed, she has sent out nearly 400 resumes, she said, but has had only three interviews.

“It’s a disaster for everyone,” said Jean Pisani-Ferry, who runs the economic research center Bruegel in Brussels. “They can’t get credit and they’re treated awfully by employers. And then there are all those young people in jobs that don’t match their skills.”

The labor market, he said, is “deeply dysfunctional.”

Throughout the EU, unemployment among people aged 15 to 24 is soaring — 22 percent in France, 36 percent in Italy, 51 percent in Spain. However, those are only percentages among those looking for work. There is another category: those who are “not in employment, education or training,” or NEETs, as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) calls them. According to a study by the EU’s research agency, Eurofound, there are as many as 14 million out of work and disengaged young Europeans, costing member states an estimated 153 billion euros (US$200 billion), a year in welfare benefits and lost production — 1.2 percent of the bloc’s GDP.

In Spain, in addition to the 51 percent who are looking for work, 23.7 percent of those aged 15 to 29 have given up looking, said Anne Sonnet, a senior economist studying joblessness at the OECD. In France, it’s 16.7 percent — nearly 2 million young people who have given up; in Italy, 20.5 percent.

As dispiriting, especially for the floating generation, is that 42 percent of those young people who are working are in temporary employment, up from just over one-third a decade ago, the Eurofound study said. Some 30 percent, or 5.8 million young adults, were employed part time — an increase of nearly 9 percentage points since 2001.

That trend is especially evident in France, where 82 percent of people hired today are on temporary contracts, French Labor Minister Michel Sapin said.

“Yes, it’s true, you can find internships or apprenticeships, no problem. The companies take you with open arms. But when you speak of employment, of a permanent contract, it seems they no longer need anyone” Forriez said.

Sonnet, an OECD economist, said that high youth unemployment is a regular problem in France. Companies are afraid to commit to permanent hiring when economic growth is stagnant and charges for social benefits are so high, and the educational system tends to value liberal arts over technical or industrial expertise.

They “often don’t learn the skills that employers need,” she said. “They’re simply not ready to work.”

Sonnet promotes more use of apprenticeships, as in Germany, where students work part time while they go to school.

Francois Beharel, the president of Randstad France, a branch of the multinational employment agency, says the problem of youth unemployment among the educated is worsening at a time when employers are crying out for engineers, computer technicians, electricians and welders.

“We have to begin with parents — ‘stop dreaming of white collars,’” Beharel said. “Blue collars, there really is a true path for them,” he said.

However, small and medium-sized companies, which are France’s primary employers, do not have the resources or the profit margins to train the untrained.

“We’ve piled up battalions of students in general education, and everyone knows that there aren’t 10,000 among them who are going to find the job that they imagined when they entered university,” he said.

Only 40 percent of students get their degree; the rest drop out, trained for nothing.

Still, he said, a college degree is the best path to a job — only 10 percent of those with diplomas are unemployed after four years, while 40 percent of those without diplomas are jobless. However, the passage to finding that job is now longer, costly for the person and for the state. It also delays marriage, house ownership and retirement.

Forriez is friendly and resourceful, with a small gap in her teeth that the French call le dent du bonheur — the tooth of happiness. However, staying happy is also a job.

“You tell yourself that you went through a lot of trouble to pay for your studies,” she said. “It’s hard, and in the end you think: ‘Here I am. I did five years and made a lot of sacrifices, and for what? To make new ones, because I need money to live.’”

Psychologically, she said, it is difficult.

“I don’t say that there aren’t days when I crack, when I cry,” she said. “I don’t become hysterical, but I’m angry with the whole world.”

Sapin notes that French President Francois Hollande campaigned on promises to reduce unemployment among the young. The challenge, he said, is to “adapt education to the needs of the economy.” The socialist government is engaged in a difficult “social dialogue” with companies and unions to reshape work rules, ease entry into the labor market and make French companies more competitive by gradually shifting the cost of social benefits.

The heart of the negotiation, Sapin said, is to build more trust between unions and companies, to reduce “the culture of conflict” and create a more cooperative and flexible system, as in Germany, one that will allow for more “partial unemployment” in difficult times.

However, he noted that France’s budget to subsidize partial unemployment is 30 million euros, while Germany’s is 15 billion euros.

Such “structural” change, if it happens at all, takes time, providing little consolation for those caught in the trap of prolonged adolescence, with cycles of temporary work and unemployment.

Olivia Blondel had to go to London to find a job in her chosen field, textile design, after getting a master’s degree and paying for night classes in computer graphics, textile design, management and dressmaking. To get work experience, she did an internship on the black market.

“I tried to do 1,001 things with the pole emploi [the unemployment office], but it wasn’t working,” she said.

From 2006 to 2009, she could find nothing.

“I feel like there are so few jobs, or that there is a huge gap between what is offered and our skills,” she said.

Now, at 32, she is back in Paris after several months in Vietnam, aided by the unemployment office, but she has been without work since June, and she is still getting financial help from her retired parents — both of whom spent their entire careers at the same company. She gets about US$1,100 a month in unemployment benefits, but they will run out in a few months, and she lives in a tiny room in social housing.

“I’m convinced I’ll have money one day, and I’ll pay everyone back,” she said. “I’ll buy a house, even if it’s in the middle of nowhere.”

Additional reporting by Maia de la Baume and Stefania Rousselle