With companies cutting back on office space as working from home becomes popular, Europe’s largest business district is looking for students to fill the workforce gap.
About 50 educational institutions have set up La Défense, a huge modernist art gallery in the western suburbs of Paris, with its glass and metal floors.
With Covid lockdowns emptying offices and most companies still allowing employees to work partially from home, the number of workers toiling in the office has never fully recovered in business districts around the world.
The work-from-home movement has contributed to the financial woes that led US co-working startup WeWork to file for bankruptcy this week.
While occupancy remains relatively stable in La Défense, the area will have more office space to fill as several new buildings are being built.
The business district has turned to schools to attract small and medium-sized companies and expand its customer base, and the area is home to banking, insurance and energy companies.
“Universities have been present in La Défense for a long time, but in the last 10 or 15 years it has accelerated,” said Pierre-Yves Guise, head of Paris La Défense, the public institution that manages the business district.
Over the past few months, the area has shown a “desire to transform into a place of student life and activity,” Geiss said.
About 70,000 students now consider La Défense their campus.
The latest are private schools from other regions of France that specialize in management and business and want to plant their flags in the capital.
“It’s La Défense or nothing because that’s where the companies are, it’s very important to be Europe’s top business region,” said Florence Legros, head of the ICN Business School.
Located in the eastern city of Nancy, the school opened its La Défense campus in 2018.
Students see the same attraction.
“My goal is to work in banks, so I didn’t hesitate. I immediately chose La Défense,” Matteo Buonamici, 24, an Italian student at the IESEG Graduate School of Business.
“Paris is more important than a resume,” he said.
IESEG’s main campus is in the northern French city of Lille, but its logo is on a building next to the tower of French banking giant Societe Generale.
“We have come to be closer to the companies and to be more visible in terms of student recruitment and international partnerships,” said IESEG head Caroline Roussel, who has been in La Défense since 2008.
Omnes Education, which unites 15 higher education institutions, opened its La Défense campus in September 2022 with the goal of bringing its students closer to companies.
“When the students are in the classroom, they can see the managers working in the opposite windows,” said Christophe Boisseau, head of ESCE’s business school.
He says there is a “chilling effect” as students integrate into the business culture.
All work and no play
Caroline Nachtway at business realtor CBRE said being in the business district improves students’ job prospects, but also benefits the schools, as rents are relatively cheaper than in central Paris.
Since the pandemic, it has been difficult to find new tenants, so office building owners have welcomed the influx of schools.
Schools are “very serious players who have long-term contracts and pay on time,” Nachty said.
But the circuit needs to be more adaptable.
“There are things that are missing to make it a true campus with the full experience and student services that schools can legitimately want,” Geiss said.
The nearest university cafeteria is located in a neighboring town.
There are also a few institutions that cater to local student budgets. Few stay at La Défense for drinks after class.
“Sports facilities, restaurants, leisure facilities and housing are four issues that need to be addressed,” said Guillaume de Rendender, head of IESEG’s La Défense campus.
The schools themselves are trying to provide some facilities.
In addition to the state-of-the-art connected classrooms, the Omnis Education Building at La Défense offers a cafeteria, a recreation area with playground games and ping-pong tables, plenty of couches to lounge in, and outdoor terraces.
Student housing is also small, but the area does not currently attract many students.
“Even if I could live in La Défense, I wouldn’t,” said ESCE student Chloe Gaillard.
“There’s no life here,” said another ESCE student, Carla Albiges, before heading to the skyscraper for class.