25 years after the creation of EBC: Which challenges for the future of construction SMEs in Europe?


On 19 June 2015 EBC held its Annual Conference in Geneva, thanks to the organisation of its Swiss member FGMB (Fédération genevoise des Métiers du Bâtiment), the businesses federation of the Vaud Region (Fédération vaudoise des entrepreneurs – FVE) and the French-Swiss Federation of construction trades (Fédération romande des métiers du bâtiment – FRMB).

In the morning, the conference focused on the Swiss economic model as a possible example to follow in other European countries. The debate covered the role of the State for economic promotion, the freedom of enterprise in the framework of the social partnership, as well as the Swiss model for education and training.

In the afternoon, the topic was the inclusion of women and young people in construction trades. The conference explored the different ways to achieve this goal, such as apprenticeship and the role of social partners. The conference resulted in some conclusions and an engagement from EBC’s members to make the sector more inclusive.

The Annual Congress took place in the Pont Rouge training centre. This was created in 2012 by the EBC Swiss member FGMB as a tool of promotion of construction trades. In this centre FGMB organises on-the-job and initial training, health and safety courses and reintegration at work for people with disabilities. The building is also an interesting example of energy efficiency and sustainability.

EBC President Patrick LIÉBUS underlined the successes EBC achieved in its first 25 years, but reminded the participants that the sector is still suffering from the crisis. He carried on explaining that currently Europe is facing a demographic challenge as the active population is starting to get older and young people are struggling to take their place. Moreover, in Europe, there is a chronic under-representation of women. Among other actions, EBC presented a project to increase the participation of women in construction and signed an apprenticeship pledge in the context of the European Alliance for Apprenticeship in order to tackle this issue.

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French Member of the Parliament Etienne BLANC stressed that France could give some solutions for the crisis of the construction sector. He explained that in the French department of Ain, there was a 25% population increase in the last 10 years, mainly due to immigration, and the creation of enterprises has been higher than the average percentage at national level in France. However, the flow of immigrants and the closeness to Switzerland also show some downsides. It is necessary to institutionalise the dialogue between France and Switzerland to overcome this gap.


The State counsellor of the canton of Vaud Philippe LEUBA outlined that in the Eurozone the average youth unemployment is 23%, while in Switzerland only 2.9% of young people (< 25 years old) are unemployed. The authorities in the Vaud region are fighting against youth unemployment through their Vocational Education and Training schemes, focused on work-based learning. In this way, unemployment is minimal and financial pressure on the social security system is reduced.

The Director General of the Federation of French-Swiss Businesses Blaise MATTHEY highlighted how social partnership is a central tool in Switzerland to solve the issues linked to working conditions, such as social dumping. Social dialogue is not centralised in Switzerland. He explained the importance of the application of “flexicurity” for the success of the Swiss economic model. He stressed that the freedom of enterprise and social dialogue are not only compatible but also complementary.

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Jean-Pascal LÜTHI (Deputy Director and Head of the Vocational Education and Training department of the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation – SEFRI) presented the vocational education system in Switzerland. The academic and the professional training systems are very “permeable”: it is quite easy for students from one system to access the other. In Switzerland since 2003 the percentage of young people following professional education is increasing, with over 70% of young people entering a VET system, with a strong dual structure. However, there is still the perception that professional education is not good. Therefore, the SEFRI is focusing on improving vocational guidance for young people.

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EBC Secretary General Riccardo VIAGGI presented the context of the afternoon session through some figures about the participation of women and young people in the construction sector in the EU and in different Member States. He showed that in the EU, female participation in construction is at about 10% of the whole sector’s working population. Moreover, only 8% of the sector’s working population is less than 25 years old. In this context, EBC decided to take actions to face this challenge.

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Françoise GENG (President of the Work and Employment section of the French Economic, Social and Environmental Council – CESE) presented the CESE opinion on equal opportunities at work in France. The rapporteur of this opinion in 2014 was EBC President Patrick Liébus. In France 13 sectors out of 87 are considered “mixed”, which means that the percentage of workers of the same sex is balanced between 40% and 60%. The opinion recommended four actions: combating sexist stereotypes; encouraging professional associations to commit voluntarily; encouraging a more active role by the State; improving working conditions through gender equality.

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European Commission adviser Johan TEN GEUZENDAM (“Equality” Directorate, DG Justice, Consumer and Gender Equality) explained that although the EU has made significant progress over the last decades, gender gaps remain and in the labour market women are still over-represented in lower paid sectors and under-represented in decision-making positions. The Strategy for equality between women and men represents the European Commission’s work program on gender equality for the period 2010-2015. He stressed the importance of work-life balance to have more women at work and underlined that employers bear the responsibility to make their sector more appealing for women.

Click here for more information on DG Justice’s initiatives for gender equality

European Economic and Social Committee member and entrepreneur Madi SHARMA stressed that women do not need preferential arrangements – they need a level playing field. She gives some examples of the bigger difficulties women face to be entrepreneurs. For example banks lend less often to women than to men and at a higher interest rate. She underlined the importance of promoting the inclusion of women starting from Brussels, explaining that the issue is not addressed enough. According to her, role-models showing the possibilities for women to become entrepreneurs are needed. She praised EBC for this initiative.

The President of the French Committee of Craftsmen’s spouses Catherine FOUCHER explains the role of this committee created in France by the EBC French member CAPEB. 60% of the spouses of construction micro-entrepreneurs work within the enterprise, next to their husbands, with a real economic role in the firm. The National Committee of craftsmen’ spouses works on all the issues linked to the spouses of construction micro entrepreneurs and promotes gender equality at work. She also presented the competition CAPEB has been organising for several years, titled “opening construction trades to female participation”.

Click here for more information about the French Committee of Craftsmen’s spouses

European Commission legal officer Arantxa HERNANDEZ ANTUNEZ (DG Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs) presented the initiatives of the European Commission regarding apprenticeships, in particular the European Alliance for Apprenticeship. She also explained that DG GROW is promoting a construction sectoral approach of the Alliance, recognising EBC’s early engagement in making a pledge to increase the quality, image, supply and mobility of apprenticeship. In addition, she presented the video competition DG GROW launched to attract young talents to the construction sector.

Click here to know more about the European Alliance for Apprenticeship

BZB senior manager Frank BERTELMANN-ANGENENDT presented the German Vocational Education and Training system. In his opinion, the strong aspects of the system are that it is open to everybody (there is no threshold to enter it); each apprentice has a contract with the company and has real responsibilities, practically learning how life in enterprise is. Therefore, the system is company-oriented, there is a small theoretical background but a sound practical experience, education is more basic and broad (not as specific as in the UK for example), and puts great emphasis on the quality of the job and of competitiveness.

Click here to know more about the German VET system