“Make sure you study something you like and that you think is fun, it’s the best way to get good results. The rest will sort itself out later.” That’s the advice I was given when I wondered what I should specialise in at university.
This was nearly twenty years ago, in Sweden. Since then, I have managed to travel around the world and work on three different continents. It hasn’t been the easiest thing to do as a law degree is about an as nationally specialised degree as you can get, but somehow I have managed to pull it off. On the way, I have gained a lot of interesting experience, and I have seen a lot of different ways to approach hiring.
In Sweden, you should have a basic notion of the job you are applying for, but your personality and fit in the company culture are just as important. In Australia, the university a person has attended is not the prime factor when it came to “hirability”. At least it was not in 2006 when I was there (unemployment rates at the time were around 5%). It was more about what people thought someone could contribute with to the company. In Singapore, there was, and still is, a strong focus on studying and graduating with top grades from top universities. However, as the country’s unemployment rate hovers around 2-3,5%, changing jobs is not difficult regardless where your degree is from.
In France though, the differentiating factor has traditionally been about which top rated engineering school (or Grande Ecole, as they are called in French) or well known university you have graduated from. Big corporations have a tendency to hire people from these schools, and keep looking at the university people attended even when people are halfway into their careers. In addition to this, companies often hire people who have always worked in the same field, as this is somehow a quality guarantee. In one sense, this is probably true. If a person has done one thing all his or her life, the person is bound to be good at it, or at least that is what you would expect. The fit with corporate culture, or the general capacity to adapt or contribute beyond the criteria specific to the position, are not in focus. If you do not have an activity on paper (first as a degree to start working, and then in terms of experience) it is difficult to get past the first sorting of CVs. This may also be a contributing factor to why people stay longer in their positions than in other countries, or don’t look for work in fields beyond their past track record, in turn contributing to soaring unemployment rates (above 10%, read more about that here).
So, when young people ask for advice on what to study in France, they are often oriented toward the “Grandes Ecoles” or, at best, law or medicine, and certainly not toward something just because it is “fun” or “interesting”.
However, the pattern may be changing. LesEchos, a French daily, recently published an article by Jean-Baptiste Pinton (General Manager of Défense Conseil International (DCI) a French military consultancy firm) where he lamented the lack of open-mindedness and diversity in French recruitment policy.
At the same time, word in France is spreading about “liberated companies” (read more about that here), and big, industrial, and traditional companies such as Airbus and Michelin are looking at new ways to make their companies more dynamic.
Finally, the younger generation in the French workforce is just as much a Generation Y (or X) as elsewhere in the world, and their view on work and hiring is no longer in line with the traditional French way of running companies*.
Diversity (be it in terms of education, culture, gender, or experience) is the key to increased productivity, especially if you can optimise the use of that collective intelligence. Maybe, in addition to advising young people on what they should study, it might be a good idea to advise employers on what type of people they should hire.
My hope is that, in a few years’ time, I will be able to tell my children to study what they find “fun and interesting” rather than “what looks good on the CV”, knowing that this advice will give them a good foundation to work not only in the world, but also in France.
* However, I suspect that the people who run large companies today were all part of the 1968 movement, and thought that their parents’ generation was too backward and had to change. Given this, we probably have to wait and see how Generation X and Y develop over time…
Unemployment statistics from Trading Economics