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3.5 million jobless and French companies still can't find staff

[PARIS] Figeac-Aero has a problem that says a lot about the French economy: the Airbus supplier can't find enough qualified people to staff its factories.

Even with one in 10 workers out of a job, companies cite difficulty in hiring as one of their biggest problems as a long-awaited economic recovery takes hold.

The crunch is particularly acute for Patrice Parisot, who runs a Figeac-Aero plant in Auxerre. Despite running ads, organizing job dating events and offering training, few applicants call, fewer turn up, and the factory is short of operators for its brand new machines. That's left deliveries running late and the company saddled with 75 million euros (S$122 million) of orders, which none of its seven French sites can take on.

"I just don't know who to turn to anymore," he said.

The issue faced by Parisot and others captures why France needs to revamp expensive worker-training programs and improve incentives to work. In fact, President Emmanuel Macron wants to go even further, overhauling the cherished welfare system.

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About 3.5 million of France's 29 million workforce is unemployed. Last year, 200,000 to 330,000 job offers went unfilled, according to the national job agency Pole Emploi.

Three quarters of that was due to a lack of candidates deemed qualified.

Macron's government is also trying to tackle that problem. It's pledged to invest 15 billion euros in education and vocational training and on Friday set out a plan to revamp the apprenticeship system.

But for now, a lack of enthusiastic labor is restricting the economy's potential. Expansion in 2017 was the best in six years, but below the euro-area average. It's predicted to continue lagging in coming years.

Bank of France Governor Francois Villeroy de Galhau likens the economy to a car engine that just isn't powerful enough, explaining that no matter how hard authorities press the accelerator, it won't go faster. Addressing the issue should be the government's top priority, he said.

"The French economy must and can do better," Mr Villeroy said last week. "We cannot remain a country with three million unemployed where at the same time many companies have difficulty recruiting. It's a real paradox." For employers, the changes can't come fast enough.

In Cholet, Western France, a poll by employers' lobby Medef u+ncovered 1,916 unfilled positions last year versus the region's 4,500 job seekers. Three quarters of the reasons mentioned by companies cited behavior issues such as lack of diligence, punctuality or eagerness.

"People adapt their careers to their personal wishes, not the other way round," said 54-year-old Jean-Francois Raud, who started furniture transportation in 1993 and is seeking 70 employees to add to his 400 in Cholet, Choisy-le-Roi and Troyes.

Mr Raud said he requires applicants to know how to read, write and get up in the morning, but he can't compete on pay and his business requires handling heavy items. "It's easy to find in the south, where it's sunny all year round, but in the north, I have to try and accommodate on hours and timings." Companies aren't equally affected. While Renault and Airbus say they hire as needed, small firms struggle.

Not Staying Unions say that low pay and unsuitable working conditions are part of the problem.

"People don't come and they don't stay either," said Jeremy Gargaros, a member of the CGT union who trains machine operators at Figeac-Aero's largest plant in the town of Figeac, southern France.

Qualified and experienced newcomers balk at lower than expected pay while those learning the trade are quickly overwhelmed by the pressure to churn out faultless parts, he said. "They'll run the minute there's a choice. Many will even opt for less pay to escape irregular shifts, long hours and noise."


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