Instead of making collective dismissals, many enterprises in France that are undergoing restructuring prefer to encourage their own employees to leave voluntarily and set up as self-employed. Partly as a result, many people over 45 are looking for business support to create their own enterprises. At the same time, there is an increase in the number of young people finishing education and considering enterprise creation as an alternative to unemployment. The EQUAL project Maillages ('Link-ages') is testing an innovative experiment encouraging the creation of "business couples" between people from these two groups.
A marriage of convenience
France's Réseau des Boutiques de Gestion (Network of "Start-up Shops") http://www.boutiques-de-gestion.com has supported around 120,000 entrepreneurs across the country over the past 25 years. It realised that young and older potential entrepreneurs could complement each other's knowledge and skills. "Enterprises would be more solid if they were based on solidarity between generations," declares Marc Mery, General Secretary of the network and project co-ordinator.
To carry put the Maillages project, the network, with more than 400 offices in France, has itself "married" the French Business Creation Agency (APCE), which is the official observatory at national level for business creation. From their long experience with entrepreneurship, these organisations believe that current trends of restructuring and demographic ageing bring great opportunities to people in transition phases. As an example, more than half a million business directors over 50 will be looking to find their successors in the next 10 to 15 years in France. This promises a wealth of opportunities for would-be entrepreneurs and is fully in line with the target in the European Employment Strategy for increasing the employment rate of young people, women and older people.
Opportunities to people in transition
Maillages's distinct feature is to experiment with two distinct target groups at the same time. In the key activity intergenerational linkages the project creates entrepreneurial couples to either create a new enterprise together or for a younger person to take over from an older company director. "We want to break the isolation of the young entrepreneurs and allow them to benefit from the experience of others," Mr Mery says.
Anticipation, transition management, and mentoring is another strong part of the project, related to the 'spin-off' measures. In this area, the project helps the (older) employees of these enterprises to anticipate restructuring measures and prepare for becoming self-employed.
"Intergenerational linkages" and "Anticipation, transition management and mentoring" are what Marc Mery calls the "active heart of the project", reaching the beneficiaries directly. Other activities provide feedback on the situation of people in transition phases. For example, three studies are being made on the themes of: unemployed entrepreneurs; the transition process between unemployment and entrepreneurship; and the problems faced particularly by women of reconciling work with family life.
The project partners decided to undertake specific research on unemployed entrepreneurs because they make up 90% of the entrepreneurs supported by the Network of Start-Up Shops. For this study, the APCE Observatory provides a comparison of those unemployed entrepreneurs who have had support and those that have not. It is able to do this on the basis of its rich database on business creation. The Network of Management Consultancies complements this information with its experience on the ground.
"Maillages" has also published three useful documents on the specific issue of unemployed entrepreneurs: a study of five unemployed entrepreneurs; a study of the specific situation of unemployed older entrepreneurs; and another on the issue of unemployed young entrepreneurs. The studies are based on activities on the ground and provide a profile of the unemployed people being supported: they are mainly men, 38 years old on average, who have already been employed but now prefer to be independent.
CNAM, another project partner and a training and investigation centre, is charged with researching the transition process between unemployment and entrepreneurship. It has drafted a questionnaire, available on the "Maillages" website http://www.maillages.fr/questionnaire/index.html, to understand better the process that an unemployed person follows to become a entrepreneur. All partners of the project are testing the questionnaire in order to improve it.
The third research activity that provides feedback to "Maillages" focuses on the reconciliation of work and family life and includes a study on the specific issue of supporting female entrepreneurs and a methodological guide with good practices on supporting women. "Our idea is to make a training course addressed to those professionals working with women," says Mr Mery.
Innovative business out of solidarity between generations
The idea behind "Intergenerational linkages" is innovative, but also risky: to create a business couple composed of a young and an older entrepreneur and make them work together on a common project. "It is a process of finding a matching couple and making them realise that they would have more opportunities if they work together," says Mr Mery. The project aims to create two types of entrepreneur couples:
Succession management in existing co-operatives
Firstly, they want to test entrepreneur couples made up of a potential successor and a co-operative director about to retire. This branch of "Intergenerational linkages" is being tested in Midi-Pyrénées where there is a strong co-operative movement and the General Confederation of SCOPs (workers' co-operatives) http://www.scop.coop, leader of the activity, has been working hard on these issues.
They have already identified a number of co-operatives whose director is about to retire and that would be ready to take part in the project. "The problem is that young people may have the knowledge and skills to become directors of the co-operative, but they may not be ready to assume such responsibility," explains Marc Mery. "The idea is to put a young entrepreneur together with an older person who can provide the confidence and experience which they lack."
To find the perfect couple, the "Boutiques de Gestion" play a key role, identifying the potential entrepreneurs from within the group of people looking for business support in the region. Each "boutique" in Toulouse (Midi-Pyrénées region) sees around 300 people a year wanting to create an enterprise; around 30 of them are young entrepreneurs and around 30 are older entrepreneurs.
Once the entrepreneurs are identified, the couple is created. The pair are put in contact and they start to work together for six months, defining roles and responsibilities. After this phase, both take on the management of the co-operative together. The General Confederation of SCOPs is there to support the entrepreneur couple for the first year. With a longer-term vision, the young entrepreneur receives training and gains valuable experience in a relatively safe and protected environment. They are then ready to manage the co-operative alone once the older person decides they want to retire.
Creating a new enterprise
The other type of entrepreneur "couple" involves creating a new enterprise together. Young and older entrepreneurs who may have a similar or related idea and are looking for business support are put in contact to look for complementarities and to assess the benefits of setting up a business together. This is being tested in Rhône-Alpes where, unlike the experiment in Midi-Pyrénées, the entrepreneurs have to start from zero.
The lead organisation is aware that this innovative project involves a risk. It may be that people are very closely attached to their own personal projects and find it hard to adapt their ideas or include somebody else in their business idea. At the same time, working with another person with different skills can bring new dimensions and possibilities and allow people to take their ideas further.
The idea in Rhône-Alpes is to organise training days on business creation issues where the entrepreneurs get together. "Intergenerational linkages" can help them to bring their projects together and develop a stronger company than either individual would be able to develop on their own. Often, young people have the educational skills, but older workers at a later stage of their professional life have the experience. The older person will have more practical knowledge about how a business operates in the real world. However, as Marc Mery points out, it could well be that "the young entrepreneur has the skills to make a market study, which the older worker does not have."
"Intergenerational linkages" aims to create 150 entrepreneur couples. However, the project has taken longer than expected to take off. It was not until 2007 that work actually started, so it is expected that the goal of 150 entrepreneur couples will be difficult to achieve.
Helping people anticipate changes in their career
Many big enterprises in France are undergoing restructuring, and as a result, many senior professionals will lose their jobs in coming years. "Anticipation, transition management and mentoring" is another key activity of "Maillages", testing an innovative method of support for professionals who are keen to move on or who feel pushed into the next stage of their careers.
"Maillages" works with the employees of these companies to help them in the difficult process of becoming self-employed. The project not only provides individual support to the older professionals, but has also established a mentoring system for them. Many of the entrepreneurs supported by the numerous management consultancies in France have become mentors for this new wave of entrepreneurs emerging from the ranks of employees of big enterprises. The mentors have been through a similar process to those leaving the companies, so they are able to provide very useful and specific support for these future entrepreneurs.
Networking to create business couples
Using the knowledge of the mentors, the project offers employees that may lose their jobs support to become self-employed. This process can be particularly difficult for people who are used to being employed by big companies and may be nervous about entering into such a new area in the next phase of their careers.
The project is encouraged and supported by big businesses in France who are keen to make the transition as easy as possible for their workers. "La Poste, France Telecom and other big enterprises support our idea because it is much better for their image that people leave the company voluntarily," explains Mr Mery.
Mainstreaming the services throughout France
The Network of Boutiques de Gestion ("Start-Up Shops") is using EQUAL to test these innovative solutions. The partners are aware of the difficulties and risks involved in these initiatives, but want to use EQUAL to learn from the experiences and to be able then to improve the services as an integral part of their normal services.
"Intergenerational linkages", which is being tested in Rhône-Alpes and Midi-Pyrénées, will be improved from these experiences, developed and taken to the Pays de Loire region to see how it works there. Little by little, the service will be tested in all of the French regions in order to become a permanent service in the 400 offices of the Réseau des Boutiques de Gestion. "Our aim is to make the work of the Maillages project a mainstreamed service within our network in the next 3 to 5 years," Mr Mery says.
"Maillages" set the objective of reaching 900 beneficiaries. The EQUAL project itself may not be able to reach this target considering the delay to the start of the activities. However, in the long run and once the services are provided as one of the key support services within the normal operations of the Réseau des Boutiques de Gestion, they expect the figure of 900 beneficiaries to be exceeded.
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