Changing Careers in France vs. in the United States
Since I’ve been living in the United States, I have been fascinated by Americans who have changed careers entirely. I know an experienced translator who does fundraising for an NGO, and an investment specialist now doing diversity consulting. Such career changes are unimaginable in France and Germany.
To better understand this phenomenon, I spoke with Sheila McKenna, a career advisor with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). I also interviewed Sybille Memin Ozanian, a professional coach, and Sophie Caporossi, an agent for French artists.
Since 2014, Sophie has successfully represented French artists in the United States. Before embarking on her adventure with Batignolles in DC, she sought to remain in her field of expertise, which was media marketing. But this was unsuccessful. I asked her why she decided to change direction:
“It was difficult to find the same position as I had in Paris (Sophie was the deputy director of the media department at TNS Sofres), my field is virtually non-existent in Washington. It certainly would have been easier in New York. When I first got here, my English and my knowledge of the American culture and marketplace were insufficient for a manager position. It wasn’t an issue of not having the right education, I had many interviews but nothing panned out. I was also prepared to start over in more junior positions, but I didn’t get a single interview. Perhaps I should have been more patient, but I had had enough of being stuck at home and I really wanted to get back to work quickly.”
When Sophie’s patience ran out, she decided to take a fresh start. I asked her if she could have done this in France:
“No, no, this wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. In France, you have to have the right education for a particular career! Without this, doors are closed. In the United States, you can start from scratch. Even if you don’t ask anyone for anything, you are suddenly credible. I came with a new product: there were no French artists exhibiting in Washington. And I quickly realized that I was the right person to represent them because I am French and because I am passionate about art. Americans are at least ready to listen to you and to give you a chance”.
Two ways to view failure
Sophie has a clear opinion about the French:
“When I presented my project in the French community, other than a few rare exceptions, nobody was very encouraging. Instead, they talked about the obstacles I’d have to overcome. Pure negativity. It’s really a big flaw in French culture! In the United States, failure is not a stigma, rather it is seen as an enriching experience.”
There are 6.5 million Google results when you search “Donald Trump failures”. These failures did not prevent him from becoming the billionaire we know him as today… and the Republican candidate in the next presidential election. Fortune magazine published an article with a title very revealing of American culture: How Donald Trump Made Millions of His Biggest Business Failure.
Changing careers in France?
Sybille Memin Ozanian worked in the HR departments of large companies for many years in France. Today in the United States, she privately or professionally coaches men and women who are seeking a better life.
Other than special “High Potential” programs, she doesn’t know anyone in France working in another field than the one in which they were educated. She provided many reasons for this:
– The economic environment in France. There is a high rate of unemployment and there are many candidates for each job offer. In some cases, there are more than 100 applicants for a single position.
– France’s labor and recruitment costs hinder employers from taking hiring risks
– The French mindset is very geared to seeking diplomas. You also need to have proven yourself!
– Human Resources may suggest a candidate with an unorthodox background, but the final decision remains with the hiring department
According to Sybille:
“French managers should take more risk. I cannot help but to think that after spending 15 years in the same job, a person becomes quite weary. In my opinion, candidates lack originality to find creative solutions. Even though my clients received candidates who broke the mold, they were never successful.”
Why is there such a difference between France and the United States?
“It is so much easier to fire someone in the United States. In France, you have to have good and valid reasons to terminate an employee, then you must provide between 1 to 6 months notice, and there are significant additional employer costs.” explained Sybille Memin Ozanian.
Europeans get their perceptions of the American working world from movies. They are seen firing employees on the spur of the moment without giving any reason. It’s tough for employees, but effective for employers who can make bad choices with no real consequences other than having to recruit again.
Needless to say, Americans scarcely understand why there are strikes in France. On June 2, CNN ran a piece titled “Why are the French on strike again?”. Their article provided an American perspective on the hows and whys of current strikes in France.
Is it that so easy to change careers in the United States?
Sheila McKenna knows what is needed to change careers in the United States. Since 2008, she has been helping the IMF’s famous “trailing spouses” to find a job in the Washington region. She was very surprised to learn that changing careers in France and Germany is almost impossible.
Sheila, is it easy to change careers in the United States?
“It’s all about transferable skills. But the conversation has to happen. So, what you need is one person to put you in the right direction. Once the door is open, if you have worked on your resume, and if you are able to point out to the transferable skills, then you have a real chance.”
Do you need to have a good network?
“Definitely. One of the real keys is to know the right people, because if you don’t get the opportunity to talk to these people, career change is much harder. Networking is a must. Talking to friends, neighbors, former co-workers, and letting them know you are in a job search and hope to make a career change.”
Sheila, do you have any advice to be successful when changing careers in the United States?
“Ask your network for their opinion. My favorite question when networking: What would you do if you were me?”
Sheila herself is a good example of a successful transition. Before working for the IMF as a career advisor, she was the Chief Learning Officer for a large Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). In this position, she was responsible for training and employee development. Since 2008, she has helped hundreds of spouses find a job, and not necessarily in the line of work they had before.