Accountancy & Management: On the borders of business life: Simon Strong finds British business likes the hard-headed new French approach to international work experience

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The Independent Online
ALEXIA MIEL, a 23-year-old French woman with a post-graduate degree in human resources management, already has a CV as long as her arm. While her British peers may have odd-jobbed in bars or picked grapes, her work experience includes attachments to an employment agency, an insulation manufacturer, a television station and the national railway networks.

Seeking to improve her English and acquire international experience, Miss Miel is now on a three-month attachment with Ilford in Knutsford, Cheshire, where she has been given her own management development project.

She is part of a growing trend of French business students and graduates being snapped up in Britain for their ambition and willingness to work for short periods earning what they are happy to consider mere pocket money.

'We usually take two or three UK students a year doing post-graduate diplomas and MScs,' said David Pepper, Ilford's personnel manager, 'but Alexia has more maturity and more get-up-and-go. Also, in researching the viability of moving people between our manufacturing plants in France and Switzerland, she gets more done in a day than we would in a month via companies and embassies. She knows where to ring.'

Miss Miel was signed up through the British Bureau for Work Experience Placements, a private service set up two years ago after its director, Anthony Weaver, became aware of the numerous begging letters from French students to British chambers of commerce.

'There is a massive demand for work placements and little supply,' said Mr Weaver. 'Employers have residual bad memories of the Youth Training Scheme, but this is very different. While our business students are work virgins at the age of 21 and liable to devote the top two-thirds of thir CV to the part they took in the school play, their French counterparts have already got at least six months' experience with French companies.'

Business students in France are obliged to undergo practical work experience as part of their courses. In some cases, such as international trade studies, foreign attachments are compulsory. Britain is the favoured country because of the chance to improve English language skills.

Work placements are usually structured into three stages. The first entails general office duties, the second the application of professional skills within a project team, whether in marketing, law or accountancy, and the third running a project at home or abroad.

'I wanted to work in an international department and I wanted to travel,' said Miss Miel, who took her post-graduate degree at the University of Lyons. 'My project here is important in helping me find a job in France. When I return I would like to work in training and career development. But if I apply for a small company I would have to be a generalist.'

British employers not only gain cheap labour but also penetrating knowledge of foreign markets. The cross-fertilization may also bear fruit further down the line when the stagier has risen to middle and higher management status in France.

According to Sarah Logan, the head of the language training department at Les Aigles, Paris, which sends about 1,000 post-baccalaureat students to Britain annually, most are placed for between one and six months in marketing, international trade, transport and secretarial jobs. The financial and legal sectors have hitherto resisted the idea.

'A few years ago there was a very negative response by British companies, except in catering,' she said. 'Now the opportunities are increasing all the time and also the Spanish and Portuguese are going to France and the Germans to Britain. People are very conscious that for career development they must get international experience.'

In response to the enormous growth in demand for stagiers in Britain, the British Council in France has published a list of relevant organisations - including nine commercial agencies - in a rare co-operation effort with the British Tourist Authority in Paris, the British Embassy and the Franco-British Chamber of Commerce.

Bruce Taylor, manager of the BTA in Paris, said: 'The idea has taken off in the last two years. Work experience in the form of one week with a British company is also beginning to be demanded at the French equivalent of sixth form. Our experience with stagiers has always been extremely good.'

Mr Taylor estimated that at least 2,000 French students a year were taking up work placements in the UK through known channels and that the number would double by 1994. Britain, too, is starting to catch on.

'As UK business schools and universities make work placements fundamental to their business studies, it will gather pace,' said Mr Taylor.

Anthony Weaver is less sure. 'In Britain we are still at the level of parents ringing up thinking it would be nice if their children worked for three months abroad,' he said. 'In France, it is the students who make the effort, and they are not doing it because it is nice.'

(Photograph omitted)