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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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‘A good thing’ for footballers to express values, says France’s PM

France's Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne - speaking in Berlin - said that footballers should be allowed to express their values, amid controversy over FIFA's stance against the 'OneLove' armband on the pitch.

'A good thing' for footballers to express values, says France's PM

“There are rules for what happens on the field but I think it’s a good thing for players to be able to express themselves on the values that we obviously completely share, while respecting the rules of the tournament,” said Borne at a press conference in Berlin on Friday.

Germany’s players made headlines before Wednesday’s shock loss to Japan when the team lined up for their pre-match photo with their hands covering their mouths after FIFA’s threat to sanction players wearing the rainbow-themed armband.

Seven European nations, including Germany, had previously planned for their captains to wear the armband, but backed down over FIFA’s warning.

Following Germany’s action, Wales and the Netherlands have since come out to say they would not mirror the protest.

Borne’s visit to Germany was her first since she was named to her post in May.

Following talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the two leaders signed an agreement for “mutual support” on “guaranteeing their energy supplies”.

Concrete measures outlined in the deal include France sending Germany gas supplies as Berlin seeks to make up for gaping holes in deliveries from Russia.

Germany meanwhile would help France “secure its electricity supplies over winter”, according to the document.

France had since 1981 been a net exporter of electricity to its neighbours because of its nuclear plants. But maintenance issues dogging the plants have left France at risk of power cuts in case of an extremely cold winter.

The two leaders also affirmed their countries’ commitment to backing Ukraine “to the end of” its conflict with invaders Russia.