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ANALYSIS: Why France is facing a severe worker shortage this summer

French businesses and unions are warning that worker shortages will lead to major problems in several sectors this summer - here's a look at which areas are affected and the root cause of the shortages.

ANALYSIS: Why France is facing a severe worker shortage this summer
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

From construction sites to cafés, buses to hospitals, the worker shortage is already making itself felt in France and businesses and unions have warned that it is likely to get worse.

The restaurant and hotel industry

The hospitality and restaurant sector lost over 237,000 employees between February 2020 and February 2021, and there are currently over 200,000 vacancies in the restaurant industry in France. The majority of these jobs are in the kitchen, but the industry overall is struggling to attract workers.

Why the shortage?

Repeated lockdowns and closures of bars and restaurants meant that hospitality staff endured months of furlough in 2020 and 2021. By the time the bars and cafés reopened, many had found work in different sectors and are reluctant to return. 

Long hours, anti-social work hours and insufficient pay are generally being blamed for the hospitality sector not being attractive to workers. This was echoed by France’s current Prime Minister – the former Labour Minister, Elisabeth Borne, who told France Inter remuneration was “not up to par” for this sector. 

Efforts have been made to boost the industry, like a wage increase of 16 percent

Over one tenth of the total number of hospitality workers in France, that is between 100,000 and 140,000 employees, have changed jobs since the first lockdown, according to the Union of Trades and Industries of the Hotel Industry. 

“Many are turning to logistics, construction or sales,” Guillaume Lafolla, a specialist at employment site at Bruce, told Ouest France.

The organisation explains these ‘reconversions’ as a move toward less ‘sacrificial’ positions – ones where employees can enjoy their evenings and weekends for the same salary. Additionally, workers in this sector might be at an advantage for reorienting their careers, as many, according to Lafolla, have foreign language skills.

Bus drivers

Looking ahead to the start of the school year in September, there are major concerns about school bus drivers. 

“All regions are concerned, and it will be worse in 2022 than in 2021, which was already complicated,” Ingrid Mareschal, general delegate of the FNTV (Fédération Nationale des Transports de Voyageurs), told BFMTV Business.

Last year, there was already a shortage of 10,000 drivers.

“The situation is getting worse every year. We have had a structural shortage for 10 years, but the situation has become even more tense,” explained Marschal, citing the Covid crisis as the reason for the loss in 3.4 percent of employees.

Why the shortage?

Unlike public transportation, school buses did not operate during the first lockdown, this meant that many employees resigned, opting to consider other careers rather than being placed on furlough.

At the same time, a significant number of employees retired and the sector is not finding it easy to attract replacements.

“These are part-time jobs with an early morning and late evening service, which means about 4 hours of work per day. The wages are therefore mechanically low, and 40 percent of the contracts are part-time,” added Mareschal.

In an attempt to fix the problem, the government published a decree on May 2, 2021 lowering the age of access to the D license necessary for bus drivers from 21 to 18.

Construction workers

Though the construction industry is experiencing something of a boom, there are considerable obstacles in recruitment.

A Pôle emploi survey also found that about 300,000 job offers were not filled this year, with the most common reasons for the shortage of candidates being lack of training and experience.

Why the shortage?

Prior to the pandemic, the industry was slow to hire, worried about economic uncertainty and not wanting to take risks with hiring if project volumes were uncertain. Hiring rapidly is always a challenge as construction requires specific skills and there is a lack of qualified candidates.

There are calls for building more apprenticeship programs for trade-work, and specifically ones that ‘match apprenticeship with the needs of the company.” 

Seasonal workers

While planning your summer break, you might have seen headlines like the recent SudOuest one saying “There is a shortage of 300,000 employees” for the upcoming summer season.

This is not a France specific problem – many European countries are struggling to find seasonal workers for everything from fruit-harvesting to work in holiday camps.

The number one in the French campsite industry with 172 sites illustrates this phenomenon. The family-owned Capfun group is currently short about 20 percent of its workforce for the high summer season, explained to general-manager Nicolas Houé to Les Echos. That means his business alone is short of “500 to 600 people.” 

The president of the seasonal branch of Umih, Thierry Gregoire, told French daily Le Parisien, that there are proposals to increase wages “between six and 8.5 percent, or even nine percent” to overcome recruitment difficulties in the overall hospitality sector.

The profession is considering recruiting more foreign workers, particularly from Tunisia. 

Why the shortage?

This seems to be tied to the pandemic, with travel having been heavily restricted the last two years many seasonal workers – having lost out on two years of work – have found alternative employment.

Employers also cite tough competition amongst seasonal industries, particularly geographically. Some mountain-based sites have reported closing earlier than usual as tourists and workers flock to the coasts.

Seasonal industries in France that have previously relied on British workers – such as holiday camps and the ski industry – also face having to deal with visas and work permits since Brexit.

Healthcare workers

Finally, and perhaps most notably, is the shortage of healthcare professionals.

In 2021, 20 percent of hospital beds in France were forced to close because of a lack of staff.

Public hospitals are primarily affected, but the shortage extends into home care and a wider shortage with recruiting nurses and care assistants across the industry. 

Recruitment for home-help and domestic care assistants is a particular problem.

Frédérique Bérard, national director of nursing services for the Avec group, which provides home help, explained to Franceinfo that the staff shortage problem has worsened: “It’s gotten worse in recent months, we’re having more and more problems recruiting. The profession is no longer attractive.”

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne recently listed health as the “second emergency” to deal with, along with inflation and climate change. She has promised to bring “effective measures” in the coming weeks.

This shortage is particularly concerning for the summer, with a spotlight on emergency services that will be severely understaffed, as shown in the map below:

Currently, 120 emergency services have already been forced to limit their operations or are preparing to do so, due to a lack of medical personnel, according to the Samu-Urgences de France (SUdF) association. This represents almost 20 percent of the 620 establishments – public and private – hosting one or several emergency services in France.

Why the shortage

Some of the 2021 staffing shortages were pandemic related – as healthcare professionals were more likely to catch Covid and then require time off. Some staff also left the profession after Covid vaccination became mandatory.

But healthcare professionals also cite long hours, exhaustion, lack of recognition, general pandemic-related burnout, and low wages: €1,500 gross per month for hospital attendants, and about €2,100 for nurses. 

Like other industries, the healthcare sector is trying to increase wages to attract young graduates – for example, Avec group is offering a €500 hiring bonus while the government has given several primes of €500 and €1,000 to hezlthcare workers during the pandemic.

Like the construction industry, there is hope for building up apprenticeship programs, and the Ministry of Health is also pushing for thousands more work-study arrangements for students in health care professions. 

And the government is getting creative with its advertising:

General context

For several of these industries, long-running discontent at low wages and poor working conditions were forced into focus by the pandemic, lockdowns and shutdowns, while travel restrictions have also affected employment.

Overall unemployment in France is steadily falling, which means that employees can afford to be more choosy about the industries that they work in.  

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Pro-Macron MP becomes France’s first woman speaker

France's lower house of parliament has agreed to pick an MP from President Emmanuel Macron's centrist coalition as the first woman speaker, despite the ruling alliance losing its majority in legislative elections.

Pro-Macron MP becomes France's first woman speaker

Yael Braun-Pivet, who had been serving as the minister for overseas territories, is the first woman to ever hold the post of speaker in the history of the Assemblée nationale.

Despite the loss of its overall majority, Macron’s ruling alliance still managed to push through her appointment in the second round of voting.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and other senior Macron backers have been trying to win over individual right-wing and moderate left parliamentarians to bolster their ranks.

Borne, appointed last month, is France’s second woman prime minister after the brief stint by Edith Cresson in the 1990s.

Olivier Marleix, head of the centre-right Les Républicains group seen as most compatible with Macron, met Borne on Tuesday. “We’ve told her again there is no question of any kind of coalition,” he said.

But he added that the prime minister “really showed that she wanted to listen to us. That’s quite a good sign.

“We’re here to try and find solutions,” he added. “There will be some draft laws where I think we should be able to work together,” including one to boost households’ purchasing power in the face of food and energy inflation.

“It’s not in the interest of parties who have just been elected” to make a long-term deal to support the government, said Marc Lazar, a professor at Paris’s Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po).

Borne under pressure

One key question will be whether Thursday’s vote to head the finance committee – with its extensive powers to scrutinise government spending – will be won by an MP from the far-right Rassemblement National (RN).

Led by Macron’s defeated presidential opponent Marine Le Pen, the RN would usually have a claim on the post as the largest single opposition party.

It faces a stiff challenge from the NUPES left alliance – encompassing Greens, Communists, Socialists and the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI) – who agreed on Tuesday on a joint candidate after some internal jostling.

Next week could see exchanges heat up in the chamber, as government chief Borne delivers a speech setting out her policy priorities.

Macron told AFP at the weekend that he had “decided to confirm (his) confidence in Elisabeth Borne” and asked her to continue talks to find either allies for the government in parliament or at least backing for crucial confidence and budget votes.

The president has ruled out both tax increases and higher public borrowing in any compromise deals with other parties.

Even as the government projects business almost as usual, hard-left LFI especially has vowed to try to prevent key proposals, such as the flagship reform to raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 65.

Party deputy chief Adrien Quatennens said on Sunday there was “no possible agreement” with Macron, saying cooperation would “make no sense”.

“We haven’t heard (Macron) move or back down one iota on pension reform” or other controversial policies, he added.