"INTERVIEW // Since 2014, Patrice Caine has been Chairman & CEO of Thales, a champion of French industry working in the space and aerospace markets as well as defence, with the production of drones and missile systems. In this joint interview with Les Echos and Les Echos START, he speaks about the war for talent, the war in Ukraine, and more.
"Europe doesn't have tech giants like the GAFAM, but its aerospace, space and defence industry is still world-class," said Patrice Caine, Chairman & CEO of Thales, in a feature interview with Les Echos on 22 September. Thales is the technology leader in these sectors and employs 80,000 people worldwide, more than half of them in France. The company works in "the most tightly controlled industry in the world". "We can't sell anything unless government explicitly gives us the go-ahead first. And that's just as well!" stresses the boss of one of the world's largest suppliers of military drones. "Defence is once again seen as a priority" for Europe and for France. That's good news for industry players like Thales, which is also investing heavily in cybersecurity.
But first you have to find the talent. The former senior civil servant who has led Thales for nearly 10 years spoke to Les Echos START about the challenges of attracting new talent to the Group, and outlined his vision of leadership.
Les Echos START: In your interview with Les Echos, you mentioned the quality of higher education in France. Are our engineers still as good as they were before?
Patrice Caine: The challenge we face in this area is two-fold. In terms of numbers, France is short of engineers, with 40,000 new graduates a year when industry as a whole could do with twice as many. To overcome the shortfall, companies are training their technicians to improve their skills, but we can't work miracles. We need to succeed in attracting growing numbers of young people, particularly women, to careers in engineering. It will take time to see the results, so it's especially urgent to act now. In qualitative terms, the best engineers, the pick of the crop, are still as good as they always have been, and France consistently wins Fields Medals and Nobel Prizes. But some international rankings like Pisa suggest that the general level of performance is going down. It's an issue that needs to be addressed in middle school.
How do you win over young people when you're called Thales?
Young graduates are attracted to Thales because they're inspired by the type of work we do. The way we engage with young people has changed a lot over the last 30 years. Their quest for meaning and their engagement with societal issues have become important factors in the choices that young people make today. And Thales has compelling arguments to respond to those aspirations.
In an op-ed piece published in the Journal du Dimanche last January, you called on young people to become engineers "to change the world". But if they want to save the world rather than change it, why would they come to work for Thales?
In terms of societal issues, for example, the work we do helps to make the world safer, through our defence, data protection and cybersecurity businesses. As for the environment, we are building the satellites for the Copernicus project, for instance, to gauge the impact of human activity on the planet, in particular by measuring carbon emissions.
We are also working to make the world more inclusive: our Satria satellite, for example, is one of the world's most powerful telecom satellites. It's a crucial way of bridging the digital divide in Indonesia, which has schools and hospitals on 17,000 islands!
Cybersecurity is one of the businesses you are developing most. What exactly do you do in this area?
We offer both "digital healthcare" in the form of security solutions to protect our customers' data and applications and "digital healthcare providers" (consultants and experts who can help them if a cyberattack occurs). This business is experiencing double-digit growth, and will account for a growing proportion of our revenues going forward. Thales expects to generate 2.4 billion euros in cybersecurity sales by 2024.
Thales plans to hire more than 12,000 new employees worldwide in 2023, including 5,500 in France. How much progress have you made since you announced these targets at the beginning of the year? Which areas account for the largest number of young recruits?
Thales is on track with the recruitment plan that we announced at the beginning of 2023 to support our growth trajectory. We are hiring young people in all our disciplines, particularly Research & Development, software and systems engineering, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. For our industrial operations, we have opportunities in areas including supply chain management, electronic production and mechanical production. The Group is also very interested in recruiting apprentices and interns, particularly in France, where we should have taken on close to 4,000 students by the end of the year.
2024 will mark your 10th anniversary as head of Thales, a company with 80,000 employees. What is your secret for staying in the top spot for so long?
Keeping the passion alive. And what I'm passionate about at Thales, above all, is the chance to take part in a collective adventure driven by innovation that will enable Europe to continue to develop its technological and scientific leadership. Thales works in an unparalleled number of scientific disciplines on a daily basis.
How would you define leadership in one sentence?
For me, leadership means giving expression to collective ambition, having confidence in our people and setting the bar high to serve our customers.
The full interview with Patrice Caine is available on LesEchos.fr (subscription required).