FOR nearly a decade the French have grown used to living with roughly a tenth of their workforce out of a job. Any glimpse of an improvement in unemployment figures usually makes headlines. François Hollande, the previous president, regularly claimed to have spotted an imminent downturn in the jobless rate, only for it to prove illusory. So what seems to be happening in the French labour market now feels rather unfamiliar: there are lots more jobs, but a growing shortage of qualified people to fill them.

France’s unemployment rate fell to 9% in January, a rate which, though still almost as high as Italy’s, is better than it has been for ten years. In 2017 some 200,000-330,000 job offers went unfilled, mostly for lack of suitable candidates, according to Pôle Emploi, the French government’s jobseekers’ service. Last year employers judged nearly two-fifths of recruitment “difficult”, an average that masked far greater trouble in certain sectors. The agency reported problems filling 84% of jobs for machine operators, 80% for carpenters, 65% for butchers, and 63% for computer engineers. “Significant difficulties” have appeared in France (as in Spain), “despite high unemployment”, notes Patrick Artus, chief economist at Natixis, a French bank.

The good news is that France is at last creating more jobs. This is partly thanks to a broader economic recovery in the euro zone. After years of torpor, growth in GDP in France should reach 2% in 2018. Hiring has also been encouraged by President Emmanuel Macron’s labour reform, passed last September, which lowers the risk to employers by simplifying redundancy procedures. The bad news is that a skills gap may now be opening up, which could put upward pressure on wages and limit how far unemployment will fall. Poor skills, as Mr Artus points out, are the main explanation for a high level of structural unemployment in OECD countries.

Mindful of this, Mr Macron’s labour minister, Muriel Pénicaud, this week unveiled what she called a “big bang” reform of France’s training schemes, to try to plug the skills gap. France currently spends a hefty €32bn a year on state-mandated training schemes, mostly run and controlled by employers and unions. But these are often of poor quality and are badly focused. Fully 62% of this sum is spent on those who already have jobs; only 14% goes on the unemployed.

Now, says Ms Pénicaud, an extra €15bn will be spent on the unemployed and the young over five years, and the wider system overhauled. Central government will take control of organisation and hand choice to individuals, through a “personal training account”. This will be credited each year with €500-€800 per person. Both those in and out of work will be able to book, and rate, training courses using their personal credits on a smartphone app, “like TripAdvisor”, said an adviser.

It is an ambitious project. Courses will have to be accredited, to avoid people using credits for hobbies. (A similar British scheme in the 2000s was abandoned because of widespread fraud.) “This is not about taking macramé classes,” said an adviser. One helpful factor is that France already has the financing structure in place through an existing payroll levy which will pay part of the cost, notes Ludovic Subran, chief economist at Euler Hermes, a credit insurer. If it can create an internal market in training schemes, it may be able both to improve quality and control costs. The main difficulty will be managing those who stand to lose their gatekeeping role, both firms and unions. Mr Macron’s method, protested Laurent Berger, leader of the moderate Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail union, is: “You discuss, and I decide.”