High-flown rhetoric on how to modernize France’s industrial sector hasn’t translated into a clear strategy on the ground.
BEAUVAIS, France — Northern France is one of many industrial regions in Western Europe that globalization forgot.
Factory automation and outsourcing are eating French jobs, leaving generations of workers ill-equipped and left behind.
“Before, we needed one engineer and five technicians or machine operators,” says Frederique Langlois, a mechanic who has worked for Nestlé for 20 years. “Now, it’s the opposite.”
Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron’s national plan to modernize his country’s industrial sector aims to usher the nation’s aging workforce into the digital economy, in part by retraining workers to wean them off reliance on low-skill, lifelong jobs that are vanishing fast.
Macron hopes France will lead European industry within three to five years but a year in, and despite the attention of the country’s most energetic reformer, there is little evidence in France’s industrial heartland to suggest that the plan has done much to narrow manufacturing’s skills gap.
Macron debuted his “Industrie du Futur” initiative last year to much applause. His promise of €4.6 billion in tax incentives and loans for companies looking to modernize and a new vision to help factories stay afloat was seen as a potential panacea to France’s lagging growth and its emphasis on reskilling workers was welcomed by a country uneasy about the march of globalization.
A year on, high-flown rhetoric hasn’t translated into a clear strategy on the ground. Lack of consensus about how best to retrain workers and bureaucracy that accompanies ad-hoc negotiations between companies, regional governments, business associations and labor unions, have slowed progress.
“There’s been a definite delay in certain branches of industry,” says Pascal Pavageau, the confederate secretary of French union Force Ouvrière. “We need to help professional branches identify their points of focus as industry changes.”
How best to retrain workers isn’t a new problem. For decades, local worker unions, business associations, companies and regional governments have met annually to draft training curricula and set budgets for the regional workforce through a bureaucratic, consensus-based system. In recent years, they’ve acknowledged the need for a digital shift in their thinking.
This is where Macron’s industrial plan wants to step in. A streamlined national vision to bring factories into the information age would, in theory, accelerate training programs, making it easier for local decision makers to push for change. But some argue that national leaders do not have enough industry know-how to dictate what new skills are needed.
“People on the floor will continue to have the competencies of drilling and welding,” says Gilles Lodolo, the head of communications for the metal and professional business association UIMM. “We think it is very important not to reinvent or create curricula that can be too general with no added value for companies.”
One organization at the forefront of the push to retrain northern France’s industrial workforce is a network of training centers called Promeo. Partly funded by regional government and partly by private sector business groups, Promeo have accelerated the push towards digital skills in the last few years.
“Macron didn’t invent the smart factory,” says Olivier Taboureux, the director of Promeo’s training center in the northern French city of Beauvais, where he is also the deputy mayor. “When you have a good idea, everyone else probably has it too.”
The Promeo training building looks like any decades-old public high school — grey bricks outside, yellowing walls indoors. There’s even a cafeteria with an assortment of liquified lunch options.
Apprentices in their late teens hang out in a large, poster-filled atrium between classes. Older students, in their mid-thirties and forties, congregate in classrooms upstairs ironing out their final projects. Welding stations, table saws and old fashioned assembly lines litter the “live factory” style classrooms. But that’s slowly changing as the center invests in 3D printers, computer labs and more advanced robots.
About €32 billion is allocated every year to training workers in France, according to Le Figaro. Almost €14 billion of that is contributions from private companies; the rest comes from public funds from local and national governments and fragmented public administrations.
Promeo, for example, receives around €50 million annually thanks to an apprenticeship tax paid by companies, cash injections from the UIMM organization and funds from the Haut-de-France regional government.
This year around €500,000 will fund new collaborative robots for their hands-on factory classroom. This investment will give students skills needed in the town’s main factory, owned by agricultural firm AGCO, which was awarded the “factory of the year” award for its modern infrastructure.
They’re also receiving money to help the unemployed transition into digital industry, though most of Promeo’s students are either straight out of high school or employees sent by their companies.
Some students, though, are abandoning manufacturing altogether, emerging from training programs not as pioneers driving French factories into the future but simply as managers.
“Project and human management are the most important skills now,” explains Antony Cartier, who works for agricultural equipment company, AGCO.
Celine Cordier, who like Cartier reached her mid-thirties and found she couldn’t progress any further up the career ladder, was a technical drawer in the town of Tergnier for French transport company SNCF for close to a decade. Now, her company will find her a new spot in their communications and continuous training department in Paris after she graduates.
“SNCF needs human skills now,” she says. “They can’t automate all of their services.”
Critics say the lack of national support for industrial digitization is keeping France from competing with Europe’s leading industrial players.
Germany pioneered the concept of “digital industry,” so-called Industrie 4.0, in 2013. German manufacturing centers are much admired here in France.
One huge advantage is the German education system, says Thibaut Bidet-Mayer, the author of a report on the “Industrie du Futur” strategy by French think tank La Fabrique de l’Industrie.
Germans get put on apprenticeship tracks as early as middle or high school, while the theory-based French school system only requires specialization after high school.
One of the most anticipated elements of Macron’s plan is a partnership with the German government, designed to help the French learn how to implement Industry 4.0.
Germany’s industrial presence and influence is already strongly felt in northern France. “One third of our regional companies’ capital comes from Germany,” says Florent Roussel, a communications manager for Promeo.
Promeo’s leaders are optimistic the French will catch up, regardless of national plans or European competitors. Younger workers with a more intuitive understanding of the digital world might not even need additional training, making them appealing replacements for an aging workforce.
“[The French] are grumpy but I think we will be able to do a good job and evolve,” says director Taboureux.
This article was updated to correct the name of a French think tank on industry. The name is La Fabrique de l’Industrie.