Teamwork makes the dream work

7 min readMar 23, 2020


How a unique concept from France is trying to put job-seekers right back into the professional world

Nadja Bouaka looks up timidly. The voice of the tall stout woman is trembling. “I have worked in a small restaurant, my competences are,” she begins before she gives up and looks down. “I can’t…” she says, trailing off. The 46-year old, who has been unemployed for five years, is supposed to give a confident pitch presenting herself that could convince any employer to hire her. Thirteen people in the room are watching.

This is not just another workshop for jobseekers. The 13 people are part of a larger unique project for unemployed people that so far only exists in France. Fifty people between the age of 22 and 66 and with experiences ranging from hotel director to kitchen worker have come together in Nanterre, a suburb to the northwest of Paris. Together they form a so-called “entreprise ephémère,” a group with the same professional structures of a company, for seven weeks until October 31. The goal: get a job for everyone. It is the 11th time this concept has been set up in France. “On average, a third of the people have found a job during the 7 weeks, two thirds found a job in the 6 months after,” says Christine Beaupel, one of the three coaches from the consulting firm BPI, which is coordinating the project.

During a so-called “pitching-workshop,” everyone practices presenting themselves. Here, Nadja Bouaka on the right is listening to the presentation of a team member.

In September 2017, the two French programmers came up with the first project of its kind. “It’s easier to work together than alone,” says coach Beaupe, “and it’s sometimes easier to find a job for others than for yourself.” So, they set up the first entreprise ephémère, the French word for short-term enterprise. The programmers have created a professional digital platform where each of the project members has their own account with their CV.

Everyone works in a different department of the “firm” for the seven weeks and all efforts are linked through the platform. A human resource group checks all CVs, gives tips on how to improve and conducts mock-up job interviews. Two other teams contact all possibly relevant enterprises asking for job offers or inviting them to present themselves to the group.

Bouaka, the former restaurant worker from Nanterre, is on the telephone team contacting Human Resource officials everyday: “I never did this before,” she say. “At first, this was really difficult for me, often you only reach a mailbox or you get rejected directly.”

Her colleague on the phone desk, Arlène Jean Louis, who has worked as an administrative assistant before, is used to the work. Together they set up large posters with a guideline for a possible conversation and put them on the wall. “Now, it works a lot better,”Bouaka says.

These posters guide Nadja Bouaka and her colleagues through the process of getting contacts and job offers from firms on the telephone.

The on-the-ground team is not ringing the companies’ phones but their doorbells. In pairs, they go from firm to firm in a certain area, introducing the concept of the project and trying to find out whether the enterprises are hiring. “Our goal is not to make a list of offers that are already online,” says Jean Bouka-Poba, a 29-year old trained intellectual property lawyer. “It is much more important to get access to the market of offers that are a bit hidden.”

Despite his high-quality training, it has been difficult for him to find a job because he has not completed many professional work experiences in major firms and thus lacks the professional network and access to the “hidden” job offers that circulate in these networks, he says.

Building a network is one of the goals of the project, says Antoine Benchecroun, who is the group’s communication manager. He could already learn from other members with experiences in the field while at the same time supporting the group with his own skills. The trained graphics designer is proud to explain the logo and the name of the group, standing in front of a wall that lists all the members’ profiles including professional photos taken by the communications team. “The name Cap@city stands for being capable to address the urban employment market as well as for the diverse capacities we have in our team,”he explains. “The towers should show the geographical proximity to Paris’ business district La Défense and the line underneath is supposed to symbolise wings — as this project and our community has the goal to help everyone to overcome their challenges and to stretch their own wings to fly.”

Benchecroun has had so much to do in the first four weeks of the project that he barely had time to send in his own applications. In addition to setting up the wall, the logo and social media accounts, he has given Linkedin workshops, especially aimed at the number of older group members who have little experience with building a professional network online.

The wall of talents shows a profile of each team member.

Five members of the group have already been successful in finding a job. Each time, the coaches have rung a special bell to celebrate their success. The 53-year-old Bruno Gollion works in the web team. Like many others, he is still waiting for his CV to be checked by the Human Resources team, which is struggling to go through all 50 resumés in detail. A trained electrician from Nanterre who has been unemployed for more than a decade, Golion is sceptical. “I am still a bit perplex regarding the whole project,” he admits. “I am not sure if it is really effective. People my age just don’t get employed anymore.”

In fact, the city of Nanterre does have a higher rate of unemployed people aged 55 or above than the regional and the national average. Nearly 15% of men and 12% of women between 55 and 64 are unemployed in Nanterre compared to 10.6% of men and 9.8% of women in the department of Hauts-de-Seine, where Nanterre is located. The nationwide numbers for job seekers over 55 are 11.1% for men and 11.3% for women.

Source: INSEE (French national institute for statistics and economics), 2016

With 15.8% of citizens between 15–64 years of age seeking a job, Nanterre’s unemployment rate is 1.7 percentage points higher than the French national average, and even 4.7 percentage points higher than the average of the department Hauts-de-Seine. But it is not because of lack of opportunities. Currently in Nanterre, there are 8,356 employment offers for 6,600 unemployed people.

Source: INSEE (French national institute for statistics and economics), 2016

Gilles Smadja, chief of staff at the city administration of Nanterre who spoke on behalf of the mayor, explained that the offers often don’t fit the profiles of the candidates. He confirmed that offers are rarer for older unemployed citizens.

Moreover, in Nanterre many of the unemployed people have experiences in restaurants, services or in the small-scale sales sector, like Nadja Bouaka. But the jobs in high demand require more qualifications or a technical expertise.

To fight their unemployment rates, the city set up special contracts with each company that opens an office on the city’s territory to give priority to employees from Nanterre. They have also set up a special online platform to make it easier for their citizens to find jobs in Nanterre. The unemployment numbers have still not decreased significantly in the last years says Gilles Smadja. He welcomes innovative projects like the entreprise ephémère: “It is important for the unemployed to not lose contact with the professional world,” he said..

The city’s job center also played a role in developing by sending out an invitation letter to potential candidates. Interested citizens of Nanterre and the surrounding towns could then send an application. The three coaches interviewed each candidate. “It was important to put together a group of diverse backgrounds and to make sure that each candidate is willing to work together on a collective dynamic project,” says Beaupel. She thinks the Nanterre group is eager to work and has a strong community spirit.

The project was financed from the revenues of a French tax on companies who fire employees. The group also received support from several private companies, including Bouygues Telecom, who sponsored a work phone and a laptop for each member for the seven weeks. The project receives quite a bit of local attention with even the mayor is planning to pay a visit in the coming week.

Every morning, after a reunion in which each service presents their work, they either invite a different company to present its opportunities or come together for professional workshops. The project also started with a training week. “I have really learned a lot and worked on my professional competences,”says Jean-Francois Barcelonne, who had to close his own restaurant two years ago and who is now working in the Human Resources department. He has not only learned from the trainings, he says, but from his daily work on the team. The new knowledge gained now gives him more confidence for an upcoming job interview as the manager of the franchise network of a French restaurant company.

As everyone else, he is working on the perfect personal pitch in the professional presentation workshop this morning.

Nadja Bouaka is not giving up after her first attempt at a presentation. After the coach presents an example of a possible pitch and gives her some time to prepare herself while others are presenting.

Minutes later, she tries her pitch a second time. Although she is still playing nervously with the pen in her hand, her tone is much clearer, and she is smiling as she presents her former experiences and her future dream of working in the kitchen of a hotel. After her short presentation, she sighs in relief as everyone in the room applauds.