Billionaire Niel Trains Geeks to Fix France’s Talent Mismatch

While much of the class of 2012 at French universities was struggling to find jobs, Mathieu Saeli and his peers at Parisian computer school Epitech were turning down dozens of offers.

“I’ve never had to job hunt,” said Saeli, 26, who got more than 30 offers and works as a software developer for Societe Generale SA, France’s second-largest bank. “There are more companies hiring people with my skillset than there are candidates.”

Saeli’s situation, set against the joblessness of a third of the class of 2012 more than a year after graduation, tells the tale of what ails the French labor market: a mismatch of skills and jobs. Even as President Francois Hollande calls on companies to help reverse rising unemployment, which has hit a 16-year high, executives at technology companies such as STMicroelectronics NV say they have trouble filling positions.

The discrepancy has prompted billionaire entrepreneur Xavier Niel to offer a helping hand with a new software school, and to call on the country’s traditional universities to rethink their programs for grooming the young.

The 46-year-old founder of Internet company Iliad SA has started an offbeat school in the heart of Paris to hone the creative skills of France’s youth and give companies what they need, he says.

“The most sought-after candidates in the world today by companies like mine are people who make computer software -- there’s a shortage of talent,” Niel, sporting his trademark white shirt and jeans, said in an interview at the company’s headquarters. “There was room for a new school.”

Change Needed

Niel’s school in the 17th arrondissement of the French capital has been buzzing with computer talk since opening its doors in November. The school -- called “42” in a nod to Douglas Adams’s science-fiction series “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” -- is an initiative Niel is funding personally.

Niel, himself a high-school dropout who got started running electronic sex-chats and is now France’s seventh-richest man, says the country’s universities and elite schools need to review their programs to prepare students for corporate life or to start their own companies and create jobs.

Some of the country’s centuries-old schools are taking such counsel on board, even if it means parting with tradition.

Ecole Centrale is offering more business courses to its engineering students. Polytechnique engineering school, founded shortly after the French revolution, named an entrepreneur as its chief for the first time. French schools are breaking with a history of admitting a handful of students through an ultra-strict selection process to create an elite cadre for projects in civil engineering, agriculture, teaching and the army.

No Dogma

Patrick Roure, who runs a 10,000-member alumni for Ecole Centrale, said his school was forced to rethink its strategy when many of its engineers were hired not by industrial groups, but by banks for trader positions. To adapt, the 185-year-old school introduced more business and management classes.

“Technology today is everywhere, which means engineers are everywhere,” Roure said. “We’re trying to appeal to the variety of jobs our graduates do. That means being more open-minded; dropping the dogmatic for a pragmatic approach.”

To compete with rivals such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, Roure said French schools are being forced to open up to new disciplines and bring in new teaching methods. Mandatory internships abroad are making way for real-life workplace experience.

Polytechnique engineering school, whose graduates include former President Valery Giscard D’Estaing and mathematician Henri Poincare, is taking a similar turn.

Staying Relevant

The school, for the first time in its history, in July named a person not from the military as chief. New chief Jacques Biot, who has been both an entrepreneur and investor, unveiled a partnership with Stanford and signed another with University of California, Berkeley to train innovative entrepreneurs as part of his first steps. He sent 30 students to spend about four months in Silicon Valley, some of whom came back with plans to start their own software companies. The school plans to raise funds, including to support student-entrepreneurs’ projects.

“Our students can find a job quickly, with very high salaries and levels of responsibility,” Biot said in an interview. “That’s not the issue. The question is how we stay relevant in the job market in five or 10 years.”

France already produces the highest number of math, science and technology graduates in the European Union, according to figures from Eurostat. Yet while institutions including Ecole Normale Superieure and Ecole Polytechnique are among the world’s best-ranked in fields like mathematics and physics, only one French school -- University of Bordeaux -- made the top 100 list in computer science in the Shanghai world universities ranking.

Ubiquitous Computers

The shortage of computer talent has become acute as the machines have become ubiquitous, finding themselves in everything from cars and washing machines to factories that connect to the Internet.

Francois Suquet, STMicroelectronics’ human resources chief, says software is among the most challenging fields for hiring at the chipmaker, whose employees range from engineers and mathematicians to electronics experts.

“The people we’ve recently hired are technical experts who can adapt, fit into a team and know how to work at a global level,” he said.

The paucity of people with such skills has contributed to the unemployment of almost a quarter of French youth.

The jobless rate of those under the age of 25 was at 23.80 percent in the euro zone -- 25.6 percent in France compared with 7.4 percent in Germany -- in December.

Spurring Ecosystems

It’s not just France’s universities that need to adapt -- the country needs more successful entrepreneurs and technology companies to spur ecosystems like those surrounding the U.S.’s most prestigious engineering schools, said Cristelle Croisille Keil, European head of recruitment at software developer Dassault Systemes.

Dassault Systemes’ offices in the U.S. are based in Boston, not far from MIT, in an area packed with technology firms.

“It’s not a coincidence that we set up shop there and it’s not just about the university,” Croisille Keil said.

Croisille Keil said technology companies are fighting for the same type of people -- software engineers with a personality that will fit corporate life, from teamwork to office hours. The company’s tricks for attracting and keeping candidates range from daily bread-and-croissant deliveries at the office to a volleyball court and a gym on-site.

“There’s an entire ecosystem, which is something France still has trouble developing,” she said.

Digital Needs

At his school 42, Niel is trying to address that ecosystem deficiency. The school’s 900 students pay no tuition, come and go freely day and night and have neither teachers nor lectures.

They’re assigned to programming projects for some of the school’s research partners. For example, the students have worked on software for analyzing DNA or developing drugs. They are assigned to some of France’s largest technology companies, including Alcatel-Lucent.

Those unorthodox teaching methods are drawing recruiters. Ametix, a consulting firm, wants to hire all future graduates, although they’re not due to finish school for another two to three years. Dassault Systemes and Alcatel-Lucent have also expressed interest, said Nicolas Sadirac, a former Epitech chief who helped set up 42 and runs it today.

Sadirac argues that companies including large industrial groups are adopting habits from the technology sector and are choosing candidates who are creative, take risks, adapt and learn fast from their mistakes.

“Most French schools still churn out standardized and conventional experts,” Sadirac said. “The digital world just doesn’t care for that.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.