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Two nations of shopkeepers: training for retailing in France and Britain.


1. Wider issues

A comparison between Britain and France of training for the retail trades brings to the fore some very basic questions, the answers to which are probably relevant to many other trades and to wider issues of training policy. First, how much training is really essential for most employees in this kind of industry for their immediate employment--which may require much common sense, but few complex technical skills? Secondly, is more than a bare minimum of training perhaps jutified on broader grounds; for example, because training to higher vocational standards leads to higher general educational standards, with direct benefits to the individuals concerned, and benefits for the economy in improving flexibility between trades? Thirdly, changes in technology have--as is familiar--reduced skill requirements in some occupations and increased them in others; in retailing we have to ask what are the effects on training requirements not only of the recent electronic advances affecting the work of the cashier, but also of the continuing trend towards self-service and the additional skill-flexibility required from a reduced labour force.

As we shall see, Britain and France rely on very different schemes of training for retailing; both countries have encountered serious problems in their training, and in both countries coinsiderable changes are in progress or being planned. Our task here is to evaluate the gaps between the two countries to see what may be learnt from French experience that may be of wider benefit.

In both countries the retailing industry is a substantial employer, accounting for 1.4 million full-time employees and self-employed in Britain and 1.3 million in France; in addition there are 0.9 million part-time employees in Britain, mostly women often working for very few hours a week, and 0.3 million in France. Altogether nearly a tenth of the total (full-time equivalent) workforce in each country is engaged in retailing. The industry accounts for a yet higher proportion of all young female entrants to the workforce--about one in five of all employed women under 20 in both countries--and a proper resolution of training issues is of particular importance to them.

A particularly serious difficulty in organising retail training is that labour turnover in these occupations is extremely high. The rate of turnover varies according to age and location: perhaps half of employees of all ages leave within a year; at younger ages labour turnover is undoubtedly very much greater. In large cities with plentiful employment opportunities, labour turnover rates of '100 or 200 per cent a year' were frequently mentioned; but this is no more than an approximate manner of speaking. Employers who are much affected by this problem speak in terms of 'survival rates' within the first year: for example, half of all young new employees have left within three months of recruitment, and 80 per cent within six months (the position in large stores in London's West End). With such very high rates of labour turnover, employers obviuosly do not find it worth investing very much in the way of training; for part-time employees the difficulties of organising trainig are greater, even if labour turnover for certain categories (for example, Saturday-only employees) is often lower than for full-time employees.

Pressures to reduce costs of distribution have increased--not simply as a result of increased competition amongst the many types of local retailers (supermarkets, chain stores, small independent shopkeepers)--but as a result of fundamental underlying economic forces: retailing has become expensive in relation to the costs incurred at the manufacturing stages. This is because retailers sell individual items to individual consumers, whereas manufacturing costs continue to fall as mass production and automation continue to advance. The time that a sales assistant spends with a customer has consequently had to be reduced to economise in staff-time per unit sale, by adopting self-service in varying degrees. There are ever fewer assistants to advise on varieties or sizes; product-information tends to be liited to that shown on the wrapper or label; in some shops the customer sees only the cashier. It is not that old-fashioned service has disappeared, but rather that a smaller section of the buying pubic is prepared to pay for it, and then only in special lines.

The required mix of retailing skills consequently continues to change. Some may be employed as little more than 'mechanical shelf-fillers' in large supermarkets; others need to be capable of carrying out a wider range of routine functions; and some must be able to absorb new information, deal courteously with customers' requests for information, deal with complaints and returned goods, take remedial action, and exercise their initiative in advancing the cause of their business.

As explained in our previous comparisons with France of training for other occupations (construction workers, office workers, mechanics and electricians), the French system of vocational training relies heavily on full-time vocational schools for 14-18 year-olds; these provide a substantially greater supply of vocationally-qualified personnel in these occupations than the British system and, as will be seen, this applies also to retailing occupations.

An initial word on the German system of training for retailing will help in understanding the French approach. As described in a previous National Institute study, training for retail distribution in Germany is very widely undertaken, mainly on two-year or three-year part-time courses under their system of obligatory day-release at colleg e for virtually all who have left full-time schooling and are under the age of 18. Some 100,000 candidates a year in Germany pass vocational tests in distributive occupations at the end of such courses, usually at ages 18-20; they account for about one in five of all female school-leavers, and about one in three of all females passing vocational tests in all occupations together. These numbers are immensely greater than for Britain. The final 3-4 years of compulsory secondary schooling for most pupils in Germany (at ages 12 to 15-16) contain increasing elements of vocational instruction, and prepare the transition fro general full-time schoolign to vocational part-time schooling; knowledge of common retail products, such as textiles and their care, and an introduction to statistics in commercial applications (up to the calculation of a correlation), are included in such courses at secondary schools.

Our next task, in section 2, is to outline the main recognised qualifications in retailing in France and Britain and to compare the number of candidates attaining them. Important differences in the subjects covered in the training courses for the main retailing qualifications in each country are described in section 3. This is followed in section 4 by a brief account of other levels of qualifications. Section 5 is concerned with important developments in the past decade. Section 6 provides a summary, and discusses the implications of our comparisons.

2. Numbers obtaining vocational qualifications

The French system of full-time vocational schools (Lycees professionnels, abbreviated LP) for 14-18 year-olds includes schools with courses for those wishing to prepare for work in retailing. These schools usually also include courses on office work for those intending to qualify as secretaries, bookkeepers, etc; courses on typing and the elements of book-keeping are obligatory for those following a course in distribution. For many pupils these courses include the last two years of their compulsory schooling, and at least one additional year. These French commercial LPs typically have about 500 pupils, often almost all girls; larger LPs have both technical and commercial departments. They are similar to the technical or central schools that formed part of the publicly-funded secondary schooling system in larger towns in Britain until comprehensive schooling became the dominant policy a generation ago.

Apart from those attending full-time courses at secondary vocational schools in France, other school-leavers (including some from the general comprehensive schools--the colleges--who finish school at 16) go on to take an apprenticeship with a retailing employer and attend part-time courses at apprenticeship centres for two years (usually a day or two each week, or one week in four; for some apprentices it may amount to twice that). Employers taking on apprentices are required to have a qualified master craftsman (maitre d'apprentis) under whose supervision the apprentice follows an approved programme of tasks. Apprentices' wages are deductible from the training levy of 1/2 per cent of the annual wage bill, to which all employers are subject irrespective of whether they have apprentices or not. the part-time apprenticeship route has become somewhat less important in retailing since the early 1980s and now accounts for 45 per cent of those passing; both routes lead to the same nationally-recognised vocational qualifications.

In total some 14,500 candidates passed their final examinations in France in 1986 as sales-persons at the end of such two- and three-year courses; the majority (11,000) passed at the basic level known as the Certificat d'aptitude professionnelle (cAP), and the remainder (3,500) at the higher level known as the Brevet d'enseignment professionnel (BEP).

Courses in Britain leading to the status of a qualified sales-person are available at Colleges of Further Education for those over 16, that is, after the completion of compulsory schooling; the courses last between one year part-time and two years full-time. As described in section 3 below, standards comparable to those in France (the CAP and the BEP) lie somewhere between the General level and the National Diploma level of the Business and Technician Education Council (BTEC) with specialisation in distribution. A number of other bodies in Britain also examine at this level, and some are highly specialised (such as the Drapers' Chamber of Trade and the Institute of Grocery Distribution; further details are given in table 1, footnotes (p) and (u)). The number passing all these courses at this standard in Britain in 1986 totalled some 1,650.

Taken together, it seems that about nine times as many now reach this standard each year in France as in Britain. France is far from training as many as Germany in these occupations, but is still well ahead of Britain.

This disparity between the current flows of persons qualifying each year in France and Britain is broadly confirmed by population surveys in the two countries which cast light on the 'stock' of those employed as sales persons who have a vocational qualification (see table 2). In France in 1982 some 24 per cent of those employed as sales-persons had vocational qualifications at the level of a CAP or a BEP. In Britain in 1984 about 3 per cent of those employed as salespersons or sales assistants had a corresponding qualification (BTEC National Certificate or Diploma, or a City and Guilds Certificate); if we include those declaring they had served a trade apprenticeship, without having received a formal qualification, the total rises to 5 per cent. For females alone--who form the great majority of employees in this trade--the proportions were virtually the same as just quoted; for males they were slightly higher in both countries (27 per cent qualified in France, and 8 per cent in Britain for those qualified or having served an apprenticeship). In both countries the range of qualified specialisations encompassed at this level in these surveys is broader than retailing, and includes others working as retailing assistants who have formally qualified--say, as butchers or office workers--at the same levels (for example, CAP in France, or BTEC in Britain).

The differences between British and French employees in distribution can perhaps be put in this way: in Britain, a qualified employee in distribution is a rarity--with only one in about thirty having a formal qualification; in France the majority of shop employees are also unqualified, but there is a significant proportion--about one in four-who have acquired examined vocational qualifications. They set the standard which helps the shop to be run in a more 'professional' way, and provide a larger qualified 'seedbed' for managerial levels.

The deficiencies in Britain at the main 'craft' level of qualification are partly compensated by training to lower levels. As part of the current Youth Training Scheme some attend day-release classes or receive equivalent training on employers' premises; others receive short spells of instruction in their shops during, for example, the first half-hour on a Thursday morning (the practice in many of the larger stores in London's West End). YTS courses may lead to a variety of qualifications, almost all hitherto--that is, under the one-year YTS arrangements--below anything that would be recognised in France or Germany as a 'vocational qualification' (further details are in sections 4 and below). Together, the total number reaching this initial standard amounted to some 7,000 in 1986. These courses should be welcomed for what they are, namely, foundation or pre-vocational courses which raise standards to a limited extent, and may subsequently lead some candidates to higher levels--though so far that has not been evident.

At secondary schools in Britain, encouraged by the Government's recent Technical and Vocational Education Initiative, experimental pre-vocational courses have been promoted for 14-18 year-olds in the last few years, some of which lead to a Certificate of Pre-Vocational Education in retailing for the over 16s. At present, this is the nearest arrangement in Britain which might, if developed, approach the French full-time vocational schools. Standards aimed at are variable (we have seen a very good course at one school); but, in general, only an introductory level is aimed at, and candidates are not externally examined. Some 1,200 completed such courses in retailing in 1986. The French general secondary comprehensive schools (the colleges, not the LP with which we have been concerned above) also have introductory pre-vocational courses which were taken by some 3,000 pupils aged 15-16 in commercial subjects with specialisation in retailing.

Whilst our concern in this study is with the main vocational qualifications acquired by the broad cross-section of school-leavers who go on to work in shops, a few words relating to higher levels of qualification may be offered here for the sake of perspective. The highest British qualification shown in table 1, the BTEC National Certificate or Diploma in distribution, is intended for those who leave school with the equivalent of O-level qualifications and aspire to middle-management positions in retailing, and eventually to top management. There were some 150 such National awards in Britain in 1986. The nearest French equivalent (not shown in table 1 because of the wider scope of the course) is probably the Baccalaureat Technologique G3, Techniques Commerciales (till 1987, Baccalaureat de Technicien) taken as three-year full-time courses at ages 16-19 at their Lycees (section d'enseignement technologique); this course covers business studies in a broad sense with an emphasis on retail and wholesale distribution. Entry to the course requires that the candidate has previously passed examinations equivalent to our O-levels. Over 12,000 passed their Bac in this field in 1986.

3. What should a shop-assistant know?

The scope and depth of knowledge required by a 'shelf-filler' in order to do his work well in a supermarket obviously differs from that required by someone in a personal-service shop who advises customers on, for example, the quality of an item of clothing (appearance, washability), and can measure how much a sleeve may need shortening; or advise on the various makes of vacuum cleaners (durability, power, length of guarantee period and conditions); or is involved in re-ordering supplies. Education, training and certification clearly depend on the mix of ultimate objectives: it is necessary to decide, for example, whether most trainees should be given an understanding of some speciality, together with training in wider aspects of retailing with the aim of flexibility amongst the various tasks in a shop; or, on the other hand, whether it is satisfactory that most are instructed barely beyond the immediate tasks on which they are to be employed.

Differences of this kind in general objectives are to be detected in the instruction given to distributive trainees in France and Britain. Briefly, French courses are broader and deeper and, in particular, place more emphasis on: (1) knowledge of products; (2) practical selling techniques; (3) commercial documentation; (4) mathematical skills; and (5) the study of general 'academic' subjects, including a foreign language.

The paragraphs below explain these differences in more detail with the help of illustrations from the qualification taken most frequently in France, the Certificat d'aptitude professionnelle (CAP), and the most widely available nearest British equivalents, the BTEC General Diploma and General Certificate. But something needs first to be said on the scope and balance of the curriculum and of the final examinations.


The British BTEC General Diploma and the BTEC General Certificate each cover a common 'core' of three subjects: Length of test People and communications 2 hours Business calculations 2 hours Elements of distribution 2 hours

In addition, the Certificate (based on part-time study) requires one optional subject; and the Diploma (based on full-time study) requires five optional subjects. These are chosen from a range, dependent on the particular college, and include subjects such as: Consumer Legislation, World of Work, Health and Safety, Merchandise Display, Elements of Data Processing.

The scope of the French CAP courses is the same whether studying full-time in the LPs or part-time under apprenticeship. Half the study-time is spent on general educational subjects: French, applied mathematics, a foreign language, social studies, etc; and half on vocational aspects, including: commercial documentation, organisation of distribution, product-knowledge, typing, and practical selling skills. All studying full-time at the LPs are required to obtain work-experience (stages) for a minimum of 12 weeks during the second and third years of their course; an employer's report on that experience is endorsed on their official record book (carnet de stages).

The final CAP examination involves some 11 hours of written, practical and oral tests, as follows:-- Length of test Industrial knowledge and commercial correspondence 2 hours Product knowledge 1 Selling (practical examination) 1 French 2 Business calculations 1-1/2 Organisation of distribution 1 General legal and socio-economic knowledge (oral) 3/4 Modern foreign language (oral) 1/4 Display and window dressing 1 Typing 1/2 Specialised complementary skills (practical examination) 1

In order to pass the examination as a whole--and receive his certificate--the candidate has to attain a pass-mark in each of the first three subjects, and an average pass-mark in the next four; the final four subjects have to be taken by all candidates, but a pass-mark in these is not essential in order to pass the examination as a whole (for each such subject passed, there is an endorsement on the final CAP certificate). A grade--equivalent to distinction, credit or bar pass--is awarded in relation to the whole examination (no partial certificates are issued; if only one or two subjects are failed they may be re-taken, otherwise the whole year has to be repeated). In assessing that grade, the test on practical selling receives as much as a quarter of the total marks: this indicates the importance attached in France to instruction in practical selling methods (as discussed further below). Also noteworthy is the French requirement of objective external assessment by examiners who do not know the candidates; in contrast to the current British trend, assessment by the candidate's teacher or employer is not considered adequate in France.

The scope of the British BTEC General Certificate is clearly narrower than the French CAP; the BTEC General Diploma with its broader coverage of optional subjects is closer to the French course, though some important gaps still exist--particularly, product knowledge and practical selling skills. Since candidates in Britain have to choose from the particular range of options that are available at each college, not all of which are related to distribution, there is no necessary correspondence with the broad background relevant to retailing expected of all French candidates.

Roughly the same proportions of candidates pass the French and British examinations at this level (60-62 per cent for CAP and BEP, 64 per cent for the BTEC General award in distribution). For lower-level courses in Britain (such as City and Guilds 9441), hardly a candidate fails, and for some courses (such as CPVE) certificates are issued based on attendance, and not on final tests.

Product knowledge

The CAP can be taken both as a course for the general salesperson and for those in specialised shops (see table 1); the general course--CAP Vendeur--is the most popular and is taken by all studying full-time in the LPs, while the specialised courses are taken mainly by those in apprenticeship. Even those on the general courses are required to study a specialist product area (for example, domestic electrical appliances) based on their spell of work-experience. They are required to produce a dossier (coursework file) of product-specific information covering, for example, quality of materials, weight, country of origin, care, uses, selling points, disadvantages, substitutes, accessories.

The final written examination includes related questions, such as:--

Should a shop exchange an electric iron under guarantee if the sole plate became rough? The user had scrubbed it with an abrasive powder to remove cloth which had stuck to it (the examinee is provided with a copy of the guarantee, which refers to misuse).

The essential point of this part of the course is that the pupil looks for the different properties and qualities of competing varieties of a product; he learns that a higher price does not simply mean a greater profit margin, but may reflect many aspects of a product which may not be obvious; and he learns that these 'analytical techniques' can be applied to other products--apart from those studied--so that he develops professionalism, pride and justified confidence in relation to his work.

In Britain the major nearest equivalent courses for sales assistants (the BTEC Certificate and Diploma) do not include a systematic approach to product-knowledge as an obligatory component. Optional subjects in this area are available in some colleges but are taken only by a minority of pupils. The specialised trade bodies (for example Drapers' Chamber of Trade) however regard commodity-knowledge as an integral part of their courses.

Practical selling

The dossier prepared by the pupil on a particular range of products, as described above, is used again in the final French practical selling examination. An examining panel consisting of a shopkeeper and teacher--both of whom must be unknown to the candidate--question him on the products on which he has acquired a deeper practical knowledge. The candidate goes through a selling demonstration of a particular item to a member of the panel; marks are awarded separately on: receiving the customer courteously, ascertaining his requirements, presentation of the product, knowledge of associated products, communication skills, basic mental arithmetic, handling of cash, etc. He is also questioned on broader aspects of retailing, such as the legal obligation of the shop to the customer. The standard of presentation of the dossier and the candidate's employment record book (carnet de stages) are taken into account in awarding the final mark.

Commercial documentation

Candidates at CAP level are expected to be competent in basic administrative tasks and prepare related documents, such as delivery notes, invoices, statements, calculations of customer discounts, reordering stock, and the use of computer keyboards. This extends, for example, to asking a candidate, as part of the final test, to revise current filing methods with a view to introducing a computer: he is given a specimen list of seven customers and required to construct a five-digit code incorporating the client's name, county (departement), year of first order and method of payment.

In Britain, though the BTEC General qualification is at a fairly basic level, the course seems to aim for a greater degree of responsibility; the candidate has to deal with things that have gone wrong--but more in a cosmetic than a fundamental way. For example, he has to be able to write a letter to a customer apologising for an error, or a memo to the stockroom manager for an assurance that stock would not in future be 'wrongly labelled and wrongly priced' and not 'damaged by careless handling' (but without being expected to diagnose and remedy the source of these errors). There is a surprising lack of gradation in responsibilities, probably reflecting the paucity of candidates with formal qualifications.

Mathematical skills

In both countries the final tests include question papers on business calculations. In Britain the BTEC paper examines basic arithmetic. (If a van sets out at 13.45 on 3-1/2 hour journey, when is it due to arrive? What is the total cost of two items at 18.85 pounds sterling each plus six items at 5.50 pounds sterling each? What is the price of an item discounted by 35 per cent? Questions on rates of interest on hire- purchase transactions were included in the BTEC test in 1980, but no longer in 1985). Calculators are expected to be used in Britain in such tests, partly because they would be used in practice, and partly because such questions are considered by BTEC to be otherwise made unnecessarily difficult for most candidates. The standard corresponds to that expected in England of those who have not attempted a school-leaving qualification in mathematics, or attained only low-level grades at CSE; it recognises the need for remedial education in mathematics (making good what has not been learnt at secondary school), though many candidates on BTEC General courses would be capable of a higher level.

The French mathematics test aims a little higher. At the simplest level an invoice has to be completed in which values have to be calculated from given prices and quantities (and other combinations involving long divisions); a discount has to be allowed from the total, and VAT added. These calculations have to be done by pencil-and-paper methods, not with a calculator. A more difficult calculation involves choosing between foreign exchange-rates available in the home and destination countries. Occasionally an acquaintance with algebra is called for, if only at an elementary level: the candidate has to express the interest payable (y) as a 'function of the number of months (m)' for which the capital is deposited, draw a graph of the function, and read from that graph the number of months when the interest reaches a certain sum. The veneer of algebra is not, of course, essential for questions of this sort in practice; it is a mark of the higher academic aspiration in France that pupils for these occupations are expected to reach this higher mathematical level despite the fact that many (if not most) previously had low general attainments in their secondary schools.

Standards in mathematics at CAP for specialised retail trades (for example, ironmonger, automobile spares) and for technical courses, such as motor mechanic, are substantially higher than for the general retailing course.

General subjects

The French educational ideal of making culture generale available to every pupil leads to readings in classical French literature being included as part of the classwork for those on retailing courses. The final examination in French thus includes, for example, passages from the nineteenth century writer Emile Zola, and requires the pupil to explain phrases that a modern-day teenager might not find straightforward. A dictation is also included and may also be from such a classical literary source.

The nearest comparable BTEC test of literacy, labelled People and Communications, is pitched at a more prosaic level; it requires candidates, for example, to prepare notes for a telephone call telling X to deputise for Y at an appointment next week; or to draft a memorandum banning staff from smoking in a new showroom. The British approach is obviously more narrowly oriented to work-tasks; even so, such tasks are a source of complaint amongst retailing employers in Britain since salespersons do not usually need to write memoranda of this type. Colleges in Britain have not found it easy to settle on the right balance; the French explicit objective of raising general educational standards as part of vocational training makes it easier for them to choose an acceptable syllabus.

The French candidate is also required to study a foreign language; in practice this is usually English (the pass-mark corresponds roughly to a CSE grade 4). It is of obvious practical value in dealing with tourists; it also keeps the door open for those who may wish at a later stage to proceed to higher education (for which competence in a foreign language is a pre-requisite in France).

Taken as a whole, the above details clearly express the fundamental French view that vocational education at those ages should be acquired hand-in-hand with additional general education. For very many pupils proposing to work in retailing, instruction in such vocational topics is seen--by parents and teachers--as providing an important means for simultaneously advancing their standards of general education; for some, it also opens the door to higher education.

4. Vocational qualifications at other levels

So far we have been concerned with the main level of qualification in retailing in France and its nearest British equivalent. This section describes briefly two other levels of qualification: one which is lower, and of growing importance in Britain; and one which is higher, and of growing importance in France.

A very basic qualification in Retail Distribution Skills (City and Guilds course no. 9441) was obtained by some 2,300 persons in Britain in 1986. The intention of this qualification was to meet employers' needs for a reliable certificate confirming that an applicant for employment already has an acquiantance with basic sales skills. It is usually attained by a new entrant in nine months on the basis of brief part-time instruction on practical skills while at work (for example, during half-hour sessions on Thursday mornings plus one full day's off-the-job instruction; no attendance at college is required--which is seen as an advantage for those not wishing to be 'sent back to school'.

The candidate has to carry out ten specified basic practical tasks, such as: using the telephone, restocking shelves, handling payments (including cheques and credit cards), and 'handling complaints'. The aim is similar to part of the practical selling tests in the French CAP examination described above; but no commodity-knowledge is called for, and no written work (comparable to the dossier) has to be produced. The completion of these tasks is signed for by someone accredited by the employer's designated training supervisor--a person not required to hold any formal qualifications--whose assessment techniques may, or may not, be 'moderated' by City and Guilds.

There is also a final written test of an hour's duration, externally set by City and Guilds, with fifty multiple-choice questions in which one of four alternatives has to be ticked, such as:--

--When goods are stolen from a store, they become part of the store's (a) loss leaders, (b) perishables, (c) shrinkage, (d) consumer durables.

--If interrupted by a customer when changing displays, the salesperson should (a) ask the customer to wait a minute, (b) leave the display to serve the customer, (c) ask the customer to shout when he/she needs some help, (d) call for someone to serve the customer.

These multiple-choice questions are also marked by the training supervisor; if the candidate attends a college, a teacher may do the marking.

The absence of an external examiner for the practical tasks led some employers to remark to us that the system is 'open to abuse', and that they would not engage anyone solely on the basis of this certificate. The Royal Society of Arts provides a qualification at more or less the same level; certification is also based on employers' or instructors' assessment, and not on external examinations. There has been a very rapid growth in Britain in the number of youngsters taking these basic courses: in 1983-86 there was a rise from 600 to 2,300 in those passing the City and Guilds course 9441, and other certifying bodies have had similar rises. This is clearly related to the MSC's recognition of qualifications at that level as adequate to attract the subsidy for the one-year Youth Training Scheme (discussed in the next section).

The main vocational qualification in retailing in France, the CAP, was attained by some 11,000 pupils in 1986 (see table 1); as mentioned in section 2, a slightly higher qualification--the Brevet d'etudes professionelles (BEP)--was passed by almost 4,000 pupils after a two-year full-time course starting usually at age 16. It was originally intended for pupils of somewhat higher academic ability aspiring to supervisory positions in retailing (head of department in a large store, assistant manager in a small shop); and it provides access to higher-level baccalaureate courses. The BEP has a broader scope than the CAP and a somewhat greater level of difficulty (until 1987 it did not require a practical selling test, but since then the same practical selling test as for the CAP is required). Twelve weeks' work-experience is now required (as for the CAP), together with the production of a dossier on a particular range of products. The greater level of difficulty of the written examination may be illustrated from the mathematics tests which include, for example, calculations of payments by instalment at given rates of interest, and statistical calculations of quartiles from grouped frequency distributions.

As from September 1987 the content of the main CAP course has been amalgamated with the higher-level BEP course; both levels of qualification continue, but a greater proportion of pupils are now expected to attain the higher level.

5. Recent developments

The growth of self-service, of longer shop-opening hours, and of electronic cash registers, have all had important influences in the past decade on retailers' demand for labour, both in quantity and quality; similarly, the tendency to stay on at full-time schooling to higher ages, and the introduction of new training schemes, have affected the supply of labour to this industry. The industry's actual mix of skills inevitably can adjust only over a period of years to such developments and, while doing so, recruitment of particular types of labour may almost cease. Such short-term imbalances need to be distinguished from desirable long-term objectives.

The long-term trend towards self-service is now so familiar that it is easy to overlook its continuing growth in commodity coverage, and the consequential continuing pressures on traditional smaller retailers. Over the years the variety of lines offered by supermarkets has broadened from their original concentration on foodstuffs ('groceries') to include clothing, toys, chemists' sundries, do-it-yourself household items, etc; with increased ownership of cars, out-of-town hypermarkets are being established where larger quantities can be bought at less frequent intervals at lower costs. The goods are almost all prepacked, or packed and weighed by the customer--no need for the shop-keeper or his trainee-assistant to weigh out a pound of pearl barley; and no need for anyone to explain differences between varieties, since everything is printed on the package. The trend towards pre-packaging and self-service continues in both Britain and France; while it now seems clear from both US and European experience that there is a residual demand for smaller shops (growing in certain lines--the 'boutiques') and for specialist service-sections within supermarkets to offer more service, expertise and customer guidance, the net tendency has undoubtedly been for small shops to decline in number. There has consequently been a fall in demand for personnel trained in the broad mix of skills traditionally required in a small shop.

This has been very apparent in France, where a large proportion of those qualifying in the past decade with a CAP or BEP in retailing have been very slow in securing employment. Of those in the final year of their CAP courses in 1985 in all subjects, a special survey showed 25 per cent were still seeking employment nine months after qualification; 34 per cent continued in full-time education in the following year, so that, of those who left school after their CAP, 54 per cent were unemployed. Amongst females who had been on a CAP course in distribution and had sought work, unemployment was higher still, at 67 per cent. These figures cast prima facie doubt on the efficacy of French vocational education; they need however to be seen in the perspective that amongst all school leavers (not simply amongst those with CAP qualifications) unemployment has risen to 37 per cent (for girls, 47 per cent) when calculated according to the same methods.

Changes in general education have exacerbated France's problem of the initial employment of those leaving vocational courses. An increasing proportion of pupils now stay on to higher ages in full-time French secondary schools (up from 44 per cent of all 18 year-olds in 1968 to 67 per cent in 1982), and the kind of pupil who moves to vocational schools to take retailing courses has changed from, say, being somewhere near the middle of the ability range to somewhere nearer the bottom quarter: these are the kind of pupils who, having had difficulty at school, subsequently also have difficulty in finding and retaining employment. Even if they attain a vocational qualification, as many do as a result of hard work and perseverance, they find it difficult to compete with those of higher ability who have taken more advanced general or vocational qualifications (at Bac level).

Despite these difficulties--and, indeed, adding to them at this time--the numbers qualifying each year with a CAP or BEP in retailing have tripled during the past decade, from some 5,000 in 1975 to nearly 15,000 in 1986; the rate of increase has been slightly greater at the higher level of qualification (BEP).

In Britain during the same decade the numbers attaining the BTEC General Certificate and Diploma rose from 300 to 800, but this was almost entirely offset by a decline at the higher level--the BTEC National Certificate and Diploma--which fell from 500 to 150.

Extended shopping hours

One of the most prominent recent changes in labour requirements has resulted from extended shopping hours and more weekend shopping, in response to consumers' demand reflected in changes in legislation. With the help of part-timers, employers can match the availability of staff more closely to the needs of customers. The increase in the employment of part-timers has been particularly marked in Britain: in 1987 some 61 per cent of all women in retailing in Britain were part-timers (three-quarters of whom were married), and 25 per cent in France. Employers prefer the responsibility and maturity of the married woman to the inexperienced youngster, and married women find such part-time work fits in well with their domestic responsibilities. Shopping hours in Britain are at present more flexible than in France, and there is also a tax advantage in Britain in employing part-timers; these seem to be important reasons why part-time employment has become more important in Britain than in France.

New technology

Electronic cash-registers, with central recording of sales and stock-changes, have contributed to greater efficiency at checkouts, in stock-recording and in re-ordering; perhaps more important for the success of the retailer, especially in fashion items, is that electronic recording has speeded the rate of adaption of a shop's range to changes in fashion and to unexpected changes in weather: speed of restocking is the essence of success in such shops. Nevertheless, these technical developments have not greatly effected the work of the great majority of retailing employees. Retraining of checkout operators to use electronic point-of-sale equipment seems to require between half a day and three days, and much of that training seems to be concerned with what to do when the operator makes a mistake or equipment goes wrong! On some electronic systems the work of checkout operators initially became more complex since they were required to enter more numerical information than previously; the use of bar-coding, and associated devices for the automatic recognition and pricing of items at the cash-desk, is now considerably easing and speeding their tasks. Much of the saving of direct costs with such systems arises not at the checkout, but at an earlier stage, in that individual price-ticketing of products in supermarkets--a labour-intensive process hitherto required to speed the work of the checkout operator--can now be dispensed with: a single label on the relevant shelf-edge is now adequate for the customer, and the electronic till finds the latest price from its memory after reading the bar-code.

The net effect of these factors requires a distinction to be drawn between small shops, larger department stores, and supermarkets. For smaller, more specialised, shops a greater economy today in the use of labour favours the employment of those with the capability to adapt quickly and responsibly to a variety of tasks. Smaller retailers in France with whom we discussed the problem of the unemployment of CAP and BEP pupils fully endorsed the continuing value of the education and training provided by these courses, especially in product-knowledge and approach to the customer; they continue to regard these qualifications as the minimum for their staff. But they have not recently been recruiting additional staff for expansion, presumably because of growing competition from department stores and supermarkets, and because of increased efficiency in labour and store-layout.

Among larger department stores (grands magasins) there is little doubt in both France and Britain that the prime characteristics required today for the great majority of those employed as sales assistants is a welcoming manner (while maintaining a 'proper distance'), the ability to listen and answer, good rapport and communication, and arithmetical competence; someone with a good general education (to Baccalaureat) level is at present often preferred to someone with vocational qualifications and of lower general ability. In supermarkets, shelf-filling can be done with hardly any training; and at the checkout, the main requirement appears to be the ability to work under pressure and to withstand tedium. Most retailing employees thus no longer require a high level of specialised vocational preparation, extending over several years, in the way that those working in, say, engineering today find beneficial or even essential. These may seem well-worn truths; they nevertheless need re-stating here in view of the problems currently experienced by qualified retailing trainees in France.

Comparison with Germany

France's experience of training for retailing stands in remarkable contrast with Germany's. Nearly 100,000 young persons, almost seven times as many as in France, qualified in Germany in 1986 as retail assistants; and the number qualifying in Germany has increased by about a third in the past decade. The German trainees benefit in many ways from their system of day-release (obligatory for all school-leavers under 18 wishing to take employment); those benefits extend well outside the skills required for retailing, and have to be assessed in terms of increased responsiveness to technical change, increased workforce flexibility between trades, and raised general standards of education. The German unemployment rate, six months after the completion of a two-year retailing course, was only 8 per cent (the latest statistics for this occupation relate to 1985; the present position is similar according to informed opinion).

The most apparent difference between the French and German system of vocational training is that the German system is almost entirely work-based, while the French rely--for just over half their retailing trainees--on a school-based system. In other words: in Germany a youngster seeks his training-place with an employer before arranging his vocational schooling; if he cannot find a place in retailing, he will seek a place in another branch of activity, and will be trained in that other branch. But in France--for those at full-time vocational schools--the search for employment is postponed till after the trainee has completed his course. French sample surveys of those entering the labour market confirm that those who had followed the apprenticeship route had a better employment experience (28 per cent unemployed nine months later) than those who had followed the fulltime schooling route (46 per cent unemployment); even so, unemployment amongst the apprenticeship-trained seems very high.

It is clear that radical changes are in progress in French schooling and training. The greater numbers now educated to higher levels in France have not yet found their optimal path into employment; at present they are prepared to take work in retailing, so displacing those who have been specifically trained for that occupation. All this may change in the coming years. At the beginning of the 1980s an OECD report concluded that there was a need in France to 'reconcile a school-leaver's uninformed or ill-formed perceptions of what he or she wants to learn or become, with his or her capacities and the realities of the labour market'. There seems also to be a greater lag in the responsiveness of the French vocational schooling system to the changing requirements of the labour market; in Germany, the vocational schooling system inevitably becomes aware more rapidly of changes in employers' openings for apprenticeships. Though it is often suggested in Germany that the content of many vocational courses needs to be updated more frequently, the present course in retailing seem to be regarded as highly satisfactory.

The French response so far to the problems faced by youngsters training for retailing, and to employers' demands for better qualified personnel, has been to encourage higher standards of qualification through the full-time schooling route and to introduce or increase the work-experience required on new or existing courses. They have done this by (a) amalgamating the CAP and BEP courses so that a greater proportion of pupils may reach the (higher) BEP level; (b) treating the BEP as a preparation for yet higher-level vocational courses (the technical or vocational baccalaureats) to which about a third now proceed; (c) encouraging more pupils with higher levels of general education to proceed to full-time vocational education at higher levels.

In effect, the French seem increasingly to regard extended vocational education with specialisation in retailing as the route leading eventually to positions of responsibility in the trade; while for a surprisingly high proportion of other jobs in retailing, the employment of someone with a Baccalaureat--whether in general or technical subjects--has become increasingly usual (for example, for shop assistants in larger stores in Paris, and even supermarket cashiers). There is, however, considerable flux, and there is also much self-questioning as to whether more needs to be learnt from the employment-led German system.

Development of training in Britain

In Britain fundamental changes have been brought about in this industry by the Youth Training Scheme, originally introduced in response to general youth unemployment and later developed to help meet the need for a better trained workforce. Since 1984 a subsidy has been paid to those taking on school-leavers (whether in the status of 'trainees' or 'employees') and providing them with 'approved' training: the current (April 1989) subsidy is nearly 40 pounds sterling a week for each 16 and 17 year-old trainee, and is payable for two years (for only one year under the original arrangements that applied till April 1986). The training requirements amount to an average of one day a week of approved 'off-the-job' training, together with the 'opportunity' to gain any of the great variety of 'recognised vocational qualifications', but without distinction as to the level of qualification. In this industry, under the original one-year YTS arrangements, these requirements were not too strictly applied, reflecting the novelty of the scheme and a lack of clarity in the details of what is properly required by way of further education and training. 'Off-the-job' training was usually carried out within the store, but sometimes involved working with other employers--not necessarily retailers--for a few weeks. Attendance at college was not favoured because--so employers told us--much of the college-course was not related to the specific work of the trainee (in clear contrast to the French and German approaches which require progress in general educational subjects), and because of lack of effective means of ensuring attendance at college. Requirements relating to vocational qualifications were introduced as part of two-year YTS in April 1986, together with clearer requirements for off-the-job training (job rotation is no longer adequate for this purpose). In 1986-88 (according to preliminary returns) only about a quarter of those leaving YTS in retailing had attained additional vocational or educational qualifications, mostly well below the French CAP level.

Of those who had been on YTS in retailing in 1986, 30 per cent were unemployed nine months after leaving the scheme: this is worryingly high proportion but, if anything, perhaps lower than shown by the French surveys mentioned above (low response rates to these surveys in both countries prevent a more precise judgement).

About 30-40,000 have been taken on as trainees each year in retailing under the Youth Training Scheme since 1984 (now includes 4,000 in their second year). This is some four times as many as attained vocational qualifications at any level in retailing in 1986 (as shown in table 1); retailing has become one of the largest sectors benefiting from YTS (8 per cent of all YTS trainees starting in 1986). Some improvements in workforce skills must be expected as a result of all this, even if only a small proportion of trainees attain examined vocational qualifications at the levels considered in earlier sections of this paper. In practice the scheme is still evolving, with unemployment pressures changing from year to year, and new training procedures becoming more established and clearer. YTS has provided employers in this trade with better possibilities of choosing, on the basis of practical experience, amongst those who might join their permanent staff. The vocational standards attained by the majority of trainees are however so modest--so very much below the standards of France and Germany--that it is difficult to see why the YTS subsidy in this trade need extend to a second year (nor, to press the point further, is it entirely clear that the amount of training received in Britain at present in the first year justifies a subsidy for the whole of the first year).

That judgment would be changed in two circumstances. First, looked at solely from the point of view of the efficiency of retailing, a second year's subsidy might be justified if it was intended for those aiming to progress to a higher qualification (for example, a BTEC National award), and made conditional on attaining a lower-level examined qualification at the end of the first year. Secondly, from the broader point of view of raising general educational standards and of increased flexibility in careers, if it came to be accepted in Britain--as it is in France and Germany--that all youngsters under 18 who are at work need to pursue both vocational and general education, then a coherent programme of studies could be developed to cover a two-year period, and might justify a continued subsidy.

Important steps are being taken towards bringing the great variety of vocational qualifications available in Britain into a more coherent hierarchical framework comparable, in principle, to the French system of three broad, and widely understood, vocational levels applicable to all occupations; this is part of the task of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications established in 1986. By making British vocational qualifications more understandable, both to employers and trainees, it was hoped that they would become more popular.

The retailing industry's initial difficulties in deciding which elements of training were desirable in modern conditions led to delays in NCVQ accrediting qualifications for the retail sector. At the beginning of 1988 one of the larger employers' associations representing mainly supermarkets and departmental stores, a voluntary organisation called the National Retail Training Council, proposed a new introductory qualification--the Retail Certificate--to be taken at two levels corresponding to National Vocational Qualifications levels 1 and 2 respectively. These require no more than a list of basic practical tasks to be 'assessed' wholly in the workplace by the trainee's supervisor. For example, at Level 1 the candidate has to handle payments (cash, cheques, credit cards), and replenish stock; at level 2 the candidate has to set up and dismantle a sales display, and receive and make telephone calls. Selling and product presentation are optional extras, rather than essential elements as in France. This scheme was approved by NCVQ in September 1988, and these 'qualifications' are required as a condition for the receipt of the YTS subsidy from April 1989. The expressed hope was that this will lead to a tenfold increase in the numbers receiving qualifications.

Taking into account the limited tradition of training in retailing in Britain, these signs of progress may seem admirable; but it has to be emphasised here that the scope and level of such proposed initial qualifications are far below those current in France (described earlier in this paper), and below those taken by even larger numbers in Germany. The MSC in its general requirements for vocational qualifications seems to have fixed its mind (too largely, in our view) on the performance of specified tasks in the workplace, assessed by someone there, rather than on a judicious combination of practice and courses on general principles taught in colleges, in which written tests and external examinations have a large part. There is a need for further and fuller consideration: are Britain's policies in these matters right in being so diffrent from those of France and Germany? The danger is that an administrative apparatus is being set up which will have the effect of enshrining low standards as acceptable 'qualifications'. A policy of this sort is likely to inhibit the progress of many individual trainees who will be inadequately stretched, and insufficiently prepared to train to higher levels; it will also inhibit the transferability of skills and, in turn, the future efficiency of the economy as a whole.

6. Summary and conclusions

Retailing is a divrese and rapidly changing industry, with consequent diverse and changing requirements for manpower training. From our comparisons of France and Britain, the following are the main points that have emerged; they relate to standards of training, numbers trained, standards of general education in relation to vocational qualifications, changes in the labour market, and justification for the second year of the Youth Training Scheme subsidy.

(a) France and Britain differ much more in the standards of qualification required for salespersons than for technical occupations (such as mechanics, electricians or building craftsmen) where--as previous studies in this series have shown--broadly similar standards prevail in the two countries. The typical qualified French salesperson is trained in specialised product-knowledge, has been examined in practical selling, and progressed further in general educational subjects (native language, mathematics, a foreign language) as part of his vocational course. Expectations in Britain are lower: little is required for the main corresponding retail training qualifications by way of product-knowledge, and general educational subjects are rarely pursued.

To put it in practical terms: the reason British shop assistants so often know hardly anything about what they are selling is that no one has ever taught them; and those responsible for the main British courses in retailing continue to regard such knowledge as less than essential. The comprehensiveness of the French courses and qualifying tests means that someone with a CAP or BEP diploma--even from a full-time vocational school--is closer to being fully 'operational' from the first day of employment. It may not be necessary for all working in supermarkets to have as broad a training as is available in France; with an understanding and commitment to a career with prospects of advancement, there is much to be said in favour of the French system of instructing all qualified salespersons in the acquisition of product-knowledge, and how to draw upon it when helping a customer.

(b) The numbes attaining qualifications each year as salespersons in France after their 2-3 year full-time courses at commercial secondary schools have doubled in the past decade and are now about nine times greater than the numbers reaching the nearest equivalent standard here. There has recently been considerable unemployment in France amongst those qualifying in these occupations at this level, and the current trend there is towards vocational qualifications at yet higher levels. In Britain the Youth Training Scheme has increased greatly the numbers undergoing some form of basic training in retailing; but the numbers attaining 'recognised' vocational qualfiications here have increased only at lower levels of qualification, mainly based on short part-time courses--at which the French would regard as the pre-vocational level.

(c) The work of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications is intended to help towards a clearer ladder of qualifications; progress in systematising retailing qualifications has focused on standards that are low in comparison to both France and Germany. Their proposed lower levels of qualification for these trades are narrowly job-specific ('competence based'); their exclusion of externally-marked written tests of technical knowledge and of general educational subjects will, we fear, lead to a certificated semi-literate under-class--a section of the workforce inhibited in job-flexibility, and inhibited in the possibilities of progression. (Matthew Arnold's remark may be recalled: 'Philistinism! We have not the expression in English. Perhaps we have not the word because we have so much of the thing'.) It will not encourage, and perhaps ultimately discourage, the raising of basic school-leaving standards amongst low-attaining pupils.

Our comparisons suggest the need for reconsideration of the NCVQ's heavy concentration on practical skills assessed in the workplace, as against written and practical tests which are externally marked--and which in France and Germany form a large part of the essential basis of qualification. Wide issues of social policy are involved, and a public enquiry into these matters may now be appropriate.

(d) The preparation for work provided by French retailing courses shows--as for Germany--that high standards in vocational courses are appropriate even for youngsters who have had difficulties in other school subjects. Clear policy conclusions for Britain cannot howevr at present be drawn without hesitation from French training practices in this industry. This is because the doubling of retailing places in full-time vocational schools in France in the past decade coincided with a rise in youth unemployment at virtually all educational levels. The impact has been particularly serious for those qualifying in retailing. The numbers of school-leavers with higher educational attainments corresponding to our A-levels (their Baccalaureat) increased considerably in this period, and many failed to find the type of employment they hoped for; instead they increasingly took jobs that might otherwise have been available to those with basic vocational qualifications.

It seems likely that some years have yet to elapse before something approaching equilibrium is reached in France in the flows of teenagers of different aptitudes through the education and training systems; till then it will be difficult to obtain a clear view of the correct balance of high- and low-level skills required in retailing as a result of the continuing trend towards self-service. The German vocational training system--whch provides retailing qualifications for even greater numbers than the French--has not experienced such serious problems of adjustment to changing demand as the French system; the reason probably is that the German trainee is required to secure a place with an employer before he begins his training (as under our YTS), rather than after completing it as under the French full-time system.

(e) The subsidy provided by the Youth Training Scheme for the first years of employment after leaving school has increased considerably the numbers receiving introductory training in this industry in Britain. From the point of view of the British retailing employer, one year of training may seem more than adequate for his employees; from the point of view of the employee, and of the economy as a whole, the advantages of job flexibility and long-term adaptability might justify the longer period of training usual in France and Germany. However, justification of a subsidy for a second year of training requires a clearer and broader ladder of progression in vocational standards than has so far been developed here; a second year's subsidy should be made dependent on the acquisition of a recognised vocational qualification at the end of the first-year, and perhaps should also require higher general educational standards for those in the YTS age-range.


Our thanks are due to the many retailers in Britain France who cooperated in this inquiry. In addition we should like to thank the following members of educational institutions and related organisations:

In Britain: A Ayling, Rowan High School, Merton; A Bellamy, National Council for Vocational Qualifications; J-F Boca, Commercial Department, French Chamber of Commerce, London; G. Brown, G Banfield, M Lewis and D Thorne, College for the Distributive Trades; T Darlington, National Institute of Hardware; R Hutton, Drapers' Chamber of Trade; P Johnson, HMI, Department of Education and Science; D McCrorie, National Association of Retail Furnishers; P Morely, National Retail Training Council; J Phillips CBE, former chair, Distributive Industries Training Board; I Strachan, Cassio College; C Thorne, Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers; C Walker, Further Education Unit, Department of Education and Science.

In France: F Amat, Christine Beduwe, Marie-Christine Combes, Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches sur les Qualifications; B Bogaert, L P 'Jeanette Verdier', Montargis; P le Borgne, LP de l'Ecole Nationale Normale a l'Apprentissage, Antony; B de Clercy, Observatoire des entrees dans la vie active; J du Closel, Federation nationale des Entreprises a Commerces Multiples; R Espenel, Relations internationales, Ministere de L'Education nationale; M-F van der Gucht and J Rouchon, LP 'Pierre et Marie Curie', Sens; JB Jeffreys, International Association of Department Stores, Paris; M Leonelli, LP Duperre, Paris; J Martinez, Lycee Commercial Mixte, Paris; JG Meilhac, Centre de Formation Technologique, Osny; W Mettoudi, College et CFA Rabelais, Vitry; A Roumengous, Secretariat des Commissions Professionnelles Consultatives, Ministere de l'Education nationale; P Saint-Leger, Syndicat national des Maisons d'Alimentation a Succursales, Supermarches; D Siwek, Bureau Etudes et Recherches, Ministere de I'Economie; M Sponem and J Taupin, Lycee Professionel 'Albert Camus', Clamart; G Veil, direction des Lycees sur l'Enseignement de la Vente en France, Ministere de l'Education nationale.

Financial support for this inquiry was provided by the Nuffield Foundation adn by the Manpower Services Commission (now Training Agency of the Department of Employment) together with the Department of Employment and the Department of Education and Science; we are grateful to officials from the Government Departments mentioned for much helpful comment (but they are not responsible in any way for the views expressed in this paper).

Our colleagues at the National Institute, Hilary Steedman and Karin Wagner, have kindly saved us from many pitfalls, large and small. The authors alone are responsible for any remaining defects of fact and judgment.
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Author:Jarvis, Valerie; Prais, S.J.
Publication:National Institute Economic Review
Date:May 1, 1989
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