June 11, 2020 / 5:32 PM / 25 days ago

France's 'Generation COVID' faces bleak future with jobs scarce

PARIS (Reuters) - In September, Eugenie Fillon should begin a two-year master’s degree in luxury hotel management that combines academic studies with a salaried apprenticeship. The problem: during the worst economic downturn in decades, hotels in France aren’t hiring.

If the 22-year-old fails to secure a placement, not only will she be deprived of a starting income and on-the-job experience. She will also be on the hook for fees worth 18,000 euros.

“Normally there are job offers out there. But there have barely been any since the crisis struck,” Fillon said, as she scoured online job ads on a park bench in Nantes, in the west of the country.

“When I saw the coronavirus numbers and the borders closed, I wondered ‘will a hotel need me next year?’.”

France was already one of the worst places in Europe to be a young job-seeker because of a rigid labour market and resulting shortage of long-term contracts. When the coronavirus hit, finding employment, even as an apprentice, became tougher.

Fillon is not alone. Some 800,000 youngsters in France will enter the labour market this summer, just as the euro zone’s second largest economy is forecast to shrink by 11 percent.

France has struggled to provide enough long-term jobs for its young. The youth unemployment rate sat above 20% in the fourth quarter of 2019, the fourth highest in Europe behind Greece, Spain, and Italy, according to the OECD.

Onerous labour laws mean businesses typically prefer to give youngsters short-term contracts that offer scant job security.

But President Emmanuel Macron has pushed through reforms to liberalise France’s highly regulated job market and incentivise the hiring of apprentices.

Unemployment was falling before the crisis - even if it was still roughly double the rate in Britain and Germany - and long-term contracts were on the rise. So too apprenticeships, up 17% year-on-year in 2019.

French apprentice Kelly Mutshu Imbay poses in a classroom at The Codis Apprentice Training Center (Centre de Formation d'Aprentice Codis CFA), following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Paris, France June 10, 2020. Picture taken June 10, 2020. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

“This crisis has shown the fragility (of the reform gains),” said Mathieu Plane, an economist at the publicly funded French Economic Observatory (OFCE).

“WORST POSSIBLE TIME”

In France, young employees and job-seekers are suffering a double hit, Plane said. They were typically the first to be jettisoned by companies in times of recession and have an outsized presence in the ailing tourism and hospitality sectors.

The government might have to think about state-subsidised jobs for 15 to 24-year-olds if hiring in the private sector remained low for several years, he added.

Armelle Bahrouni, 23, quit her Paris bar job in February, a month before France went into lockdown, because she wanted to find a hospitality role with a view to one day running a bar.

Four months later, bars and restaurants in Paris can only offer outdoor seating. Many remain closed and Bahrouni is out of work.

“The longest time I’ve done nothing with my life before this was two months. And even then I did temping jobs,” Bahrouni said.

Macron’s government will in the days ahead hold talks with trade unions and employer groups over how to create jobs for youngsters during the depression.

The need is pressing. The labour ministry anticipates that as many as 320,000 young people will join queues at job-seeker centres. Youth unemployment may hit 30%, it forecasts.

“I entered the job market at the worst possible time,” said 23-year-old Louis Lhomme, who this summer received a master’s in urban planning from Paris’ Sciences Po, which for more than a century has been educating France’s decision-makers.

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Lhomme said he had opted for enrolling in a second master’s degree rather than settling for an imperfect job - an option few can afford.

“That will shield me from the worst of the crisis.”

Reporting by Michaela Cabrera and Caroline Pailliez; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Mike Collett-White

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