Are graduates up to the job?

18mar98: Peter Rook: Educated to manage the dole office.

As requested I put finger(s) to computer. I intend this to be thought provoking but not provocative.

A couple of chance conversations set me pondering.

Firstly as Chair of Governors of one of "my schools" being "brought up to speed" by the careers teacher about "current thinking on education and training". The new "sound bite", that stuck in my mind was that, "we no longer train people for employability but give them experiences for employability".

Secondly in conversation with the current Chairman of the Yorkshire engineering company that was my first "proper job" after leaving higher education, I wanted to talk employment for school leavers, he talked lack of graduates. As the company is on adjoining land to a university I was initially confused, but on discussion the concern became clear as did the potential contradiction of the sound bite.

The engineering company in the early seventies, as now, manufactured and supplied "technical plant" to a world wide market. On reflection a core of about twenty "mid twenties young professionals" ran the organisation of about eight hundred employees. It is these twenty that I use as my example.

The twenty, both lads and lassies, were typically bright and from skilled working class stock, coming straight from school at 16. The skilled working class stock is significant as the lassies started as office juniors and the lads as apprentices, the initial pay rates for both requiring family support.

The lassies tended to work as directors secretaries, personal staff, accounts cashiers and exhibition organisers. They would have gained relevant "secretarial/technical" qualifications by day release and night-school.

The lads would have become team leaders in the drawing office. By then

  • He would have completed his apprenticeship as well as gaining an ONC and HNC, mostly at night school. His technical education would have been directed by and towards the high level skills necessary for a particular job. His academic challenge may well stump many of today's graduates.
  • He would have gained considerable social skills both on the shop floor and in the office.
  • At a time when a week in a Scarborough guest house was considered up market he would have travelled for work to the likes of Australia, Brazil or Cuba.
  • He would be a very valuable resource to his employer and have considerable kudos in his own community, quickly he would move upwards or outwards in his career.
Twenty five years later where are these lads and lassies? Invariably bright 16 year olds with supportive families will be taking their 'A' levels and preparing to go to university. So what of the bright mid-twenties professionals?

The easy part is the lassies. They have become lads and lassies who have vocationally orientated degrees and are keen to join the administration and management of an (any) organisation especially one so close to the "union bar", (I know because I was the first such example for that company).

But what of the lads? Remember those bright, still young, lads with that package of essential skills and experiences, who understood how we got here and how to move things along, who had vision together with the confidence and support of both directors and the shop floor, that allowed them the space and resources to develop the products and their applications.

Now these lads are without the benefit of the technical training, without the shop floor experience and credibility, nor do they gain kudos in their communities from working in engineering. So they (lassies included nowadays) turn down the offer of a guaranteed career (barring accidents) in an organisation that would sponsor them through university any pay them to work in the holidays. A major stumbling block is the requirement to work on a shop floor related task for two years in order to gain experience and the credibility of a work force who will otherwise "have them for breakfast".

Experiences for employability, if it means anything must mean an ability to learn and a breadth of experience, but also a willingness to learn and the capacity to share in a work culture.

Grossing this experience up to UK plc, we have a culture where there is motivation and kudos to continue with education then administer and manage rather than create or make. Ultimately we will all be doing PhD's, with the only vocational orientation being the theory of how to administer and manage the dole office.

20mar98: Roger Hind: Graduates with the social skills of a caterpillar.

The view from small business.

I have employed many college, university and TEC graduates and have found that they are generally institutionalised, overeducated, one-dimensional characters who for the main part have a chip on their shoulders because they feel as graduates they should automatically be placed at a management level. However, in reality, this is rarely the case.

How, as an employer, can we employ a student whose only knowledge of his or her chosen career is theory based with the exception of a 2 week placement in a remotely related field.

The students are taught by desk bound individuals whose knowledge is also theory based who have dipped their toe into the workplace only to decide it was actually hard work and actually they knew nothing and in a state of panic returned to the bosom of the education system to become tutors and lecturers.

How can industry take these people as serious candidates for management posts. Many of them have been institutionalised by being in education until they are 19, 20 or 21 and have the social skills of a caterpillar. Can they manage an iron on a uniform? Can they manage to stand close to the razor? All they seem to be able to manage is to go home.

Theoretical knowledge is only of any use when proportionately integrated with practical application. We do not need socially maladjusted 19-21 year olds, we need motivated school leavers, who are on the job trained and who are backed up with current and forward thinking theoretical knowledge.

I have few qualifications: 3 CSEs. I never bothered with exams at school because I new I was going into the army. Qualifications have never been a problem to me. I have simply lied about them when applying for a job. I have been offered every job I have ever applied for.

20mar98: Rosemary Lythgoe: A degree of experience required?

In the three years as an undergraduate studying social studies and linguistics, I led the life of many people. A student was not one of those roles. This assumes I would have completed my three years without gaining the letters Bachelor Of Arts. I am actually sad to admit to being awarded this degree. In my experience I am proof of two facts: The degree I have taught me absolutely nothing. It appears my present current, decent salary was earned from my social skills. These strengths were developed through my work experience to fund my studies, and were separate from timetabled education.

It would be untrue to paint a sad desperate picture of my college days. This is most certainly an untruth. In these years I learned, quite simply the true meaning of independence. I didn't qualify for even the most meagre of grants, other financial support was not forthcoming. The bank viewed these considerations and announced I was unable to qualify for any type of student loan. This pointed at self funding, cleaning, cooking, shopwork and nursing. I still met with the opportunity to socialise, and will always reminisce with fondness. It was the sheer single mindedness to succeed that made my degree possible.

The last paragraph hints at an effort to obtain the degree. At every corner there was the element of struggling but it wasn't the academic challenge as one might expect instead the race to earn enough to pay the college accommodation fees. In my second year I moved out of the college residences because this soon became impossible.

In the space of a very short time I learned the art of time management. This contrasted greatly with many of my contemporaries. Many of them were shrouded in an aura of apathy, the degree held no challenge or threat-the main focus of life was built around blowing grants and loans on beer in the student Union. The banks rejoiced at this merry little band, making it possible for them to continue this routine. This was such a good option after all the debts could be paid back anytime, with particularly low interest.

Many of the students lived in a happy, make believe land. Almost as if they swallowed the jargon that a degree would automatically qualify for a decent salary. This attitude still prevails, and many refuse menial work because they are worth more In the case of many however, the bubble has burst. These individuals are back to the same situation of three years ago as dependants of their parents. Some believe that if they start another course this will change.....to this I wonder what skills are you hoping to gain..?

This leads us to looking at the general academic arena. Many of the scholars have never actually left education. Their lives have been a natural progression from school to college, to university back to school. This is a concept I have difficulty in grasping. Is it possible for such scholars to be able to dictate curriculums, when they have no concept of life skills beyond the classroom?. The second aspect to this is the classroom cannot, will not have any respect for the young so called professional, who has no direction in themselves, yet alone precious little to control a classroom. In this case I can fully understand, if not condone the disruptions education.

My education away from academic institutions taught time management, social awareness, determination, ambition and hard work. These are qualities I would search for in an employee. I am saddened to report, experience has shown education in academia breeds apathy rather than assets.

02apr98: Steelwork Inspector : Experience needed in the construction industry?

In the 1980s governmant grants ensured that there was a steady stream of graduates with Civil Engineering degrees taken on by the construction industry. When these grants stopped so did the take up of graduates.

The post-degree experience is essential to becoming a chartered engineer. Leaving university at 22 or 23 meant graduates could become working engineers by the age of 26 or 27.

There is now far fewer graduates becoming chartered engineers. However, this is not the real crisis. We are facing more shortages of bricklayers, electricians, joiners, steel fixers, platers, welders etc. This is because there are so few apprenticeships.

In the construction industry, every job is a one-off. You do need skilled, experienced workers to solve the many problems that occur. We are not getting them now.

One particular issue is that there is a dearth of good steel erection supervision. The route from steel erector to charge hand to foreman to general foreman to erection manager does not exist to the same extent.

And these skills cannot be taught in an academic context. A good erection manager needs a lifetime of experience.

28jul98: Lindsay Webster: Training for Leisure

I am a graduate of a course in leisure and recreation management that I did as a part-time student. I started work as a life guard at a leisure centre after doing A-levels at sixth form college. A year later I started my degree.

The course was basically a good one: I could relate it to the work I was doing which made the course work more understandable. But fellow students often struggled and relied on me to explain aspects of leisure management that they were not familiar with. I got a better degree than most of my fellow students.

Although I was studying part-time, the degree only took me three years: Because I was working in the trade I was exempted from certain parts of the course. But these exemptions were on the basis of validated experience. The degree has helped me in my job. I am now in a middle management position but the workers I started with are still life guards.

The organisation I work for takes qualifications seriously and usually management jobs are filled externally and go to qualified but experienced people. Experience, they have found, is very important: They had previously taken on employees with qualifications but limited experience who have not lived up to expectations. They are now moving to the position where they seek to train existing employees or take on candidates who have management potential with a view to seeing that they get formal qualifications.

Formal qualifications are seen as a means to improve managerial quality. For higher management positions they are an always an element of the job specification. It is very difficult, even for internal promotion for a candidate to succeed on experience alone. For middle management and above personality and psychometric tests are used in conjunction with interviews and presentations by the candidates. The interviews are structured and formal using a pre-defined points scheme which is matched to the job specification.

In the case of formal training funded by the organisation, the employee must contribute to the cost if they resign within a specific time.

As for my fellow students on the degree course, who did not have my on-the-job opportunities, one year after graduation most of them are doing low-skilled jobs.

28aug98: Senior Engineer: Under 35's can't solve the problems - The English Disease.

I am a senior engineer working on very large engineering projects. Over the past 10 to 15 years it has become increasingly difficult for graduates to get practical experience. What is worse is that this lack of hands-on experience is not regarded as important by recent graduates: An MBA is considered much more valuable.

But not everybody can run the company. We increasingly have a situation where younger members of staff (now below 35) cannot solve practical problems. In previous years, people started as tea-boys. The suitable one worked their way up ot become management having learnt every aspect of the company's business. But now even higher management come in for a few years and know little about the company. The health of the company is not something they necessarily worry about.

In Germany and other European countries, the training system incorporates hands on experience and has a development program for existing staff. It was much more usual for someone to work their way to the top from within the company.

The lack of awareness of the importance of hands on experience does seem to be a particularly English problem.

24jan99: Andy Eadie: Too posh to do a proper job?

I am the proprietor of a small business with ten employees. I have worked in the building industry for seventeen years and it has given me a good living. But nobody seems to want to learn a trade anymore.

I know the age of technology is here and manual work is less appealing than being sat at a computer but surely anyone that wants to do well in the construction industry must be better off getting a trade first and some hands-on experience.

The days of "get a trade and you'll be alright lad" may have gone (as a result of the status-consciousness amongst educators rejecting "working class" employment) but I think education is now geared to encourage students to go on to become graduates and keep out of employment as long as they can.

The game now seems to be to do your A-levels, do a degree, then a management course, then maybe a year out and then maybe (just maybe) try to find a job. But as far as I'm concerned twenty years of full-time education and a year of smoking pot in India are not good enough qualifications for a manager's job. (I know a pub where such people are waiting for their first 30K job to come along!)

Surely somebody who studies at the same time as doing a full-time job on the shop floor is better qualified by their mid-twenties. They may not be as academically qualified on paper but they will have a wealth of experience. These people can then go on to promotion or start their own business, doing further studying as required. This is the type of education we need: One that concentrates on the on-the-job learning for office juniors and apprentices instead of years out and fast-tracking.

If we do carry on with our present system of pushing as many as possible through "higher education", we have a society of "educated" people who are qualified for jobs that do not exist.

At the age of 33, I am considered to be young in the building trade because, since the mid 80's no major employers have taken on apprentices. The days of employers recruiting from schools have gone. It is now only a question of time before there is a major shortage in the construction industry.

I have tried to employ people but it is virtually impossible to find good tradesmen. This will only get worse as young people don't want to work in the building trade. It will probably only dawn on the general public when they start being charged exorbitant prices for the simplest of jobs. Then they will realise that even the cowboys can name their own price. Finding an honest tradesman will be a lifelong search.

06feb99: John Oxley: Subsidised Beowulf for the Middle Classes

I am not usually a Daily Express reader but Mary Kenny's piece "On mature students' sacrifices" on February 5th made me think of some of the entries I had seen on www.faxfn.org

When she was a mature student and a "hard-bitten, been there, done that type" she had the expected scepticism for academics:

"A lot of the time, the academics really did talk tosh, too. The late Eighties and early Nineties were the high point of daft academic feminism and batty Marxism: on the night the Berlin Wall fell, in 1989, I was listening to a lecture on the Homeric myth as a metaphor of late capitalism. I listened to seminars on Jane Eyre as the metaphor of the governess as proletariat ("Did Charlotte Bronte read Engels?"). I was involved in a deconstruction of Pride And Prejudice as a metaphor for the menopause (the hidden narrative being that Mrs Bennet was going through the change of life)."

This may sound like cheap criticisms (which are rarely answered) but it was her next sentence that alerted me.

"To be sure, there was some engaging literary teaching and if a degree course only gets you to read Beowulf and Browning closely, it's worth it."

For Ms Kenny, it may have been a worth-while way to spend her (hard earned?) salary as a popular journalist. But where is the justification for the vast government subsidies on the education of the sons and daughters of the middle classes? Us cynics might suspect that the main justification comes from the results of a Home Counties focus group.

If the justification is "purely educational" (ie. not job related) why should we be spending so much on the priviledged? If it is training for the national proserity should not we have some benchmarks to show whether the money is well spent.

09feb99: Manager and Business Analyst: "Life long learning" (Could do better!)

I am a manager and business analyst. I have been regularly promoted and always exceeded my performance targets. I am a member of the Institute of Personnel Development and recently I received an masters degree which I obtained for cosmetic reasons as I did not do a first degree. Over the years I have done many short courses, paid for by my employers, but now I resist them because I have never felt that I learnt anything from them.

The best course I ever did was an HND in Business Studies. This was effective because it gave the basics and, most importantly, work experience. It got me into my first real job in a prestigious and well known company which I enjoyed greatly. This job taught me alot and I progressed well.

But despite all the HND course did for me, I felt most of the lecturers were out of touch, having been out of the business environment for several years (or decades). But they were able to impart some basic information in a structured context and one member of staff was dedicated to helping us find good job experience.

I think it would be an excellent contribution to "life long learning" for educational instutions to attract people with on-going experience as regular part-time lecturers. (I do give the occasional lecture myself.) In my view, regular day release for people such as me to be involved in teaching would give much more to the cause of life long learning than the current crop of courses that often miss the mark.

At present there is a great divide between academics and practicioners. As a crude generalisation I can say that we don't value them and they don't value us. But, of course, the very active PR machines of the higher and further education sectors keep such conflicts out of public view.

20feb99: Roger Hind:Graduates are not too posh. They are too institutionalised.

Dear faxfn,

I have seen your advertisment in Private Eye "Are graduates too posh to do proper jobs?" If you actually read our postings you will see that a more accurate generalisation is not that they are too posh but rather too institutionalised.

At the age of 16 we are given a stark choice: venture into the job market with the real possibility of failure and unemployment or stay on at college cosseted by mummy and daddy and the taxpayer until forced to fend for themselves.

At 16 how do you know what you are going to do with your life based on 16 years with mum and dad and 11 years of schooling. Taxpayers' money would be better spent on mature students, having had some experience of what life has to offer. They would then be better equiped to select suitable training and the rest of us would at lest know our taxes were not wasted on inappropriate courses.

Don't spend so much of taxpayers money on adolescents, spend it on people that have had some experience of life and are more sure of the education they need.

25mar99: Ben Daglish: Golden rule for IT managers: "Never hire the graduate."

I'm lucky enough to be part of the 'lost boys' - the children who got the first generation microcomputers in their Christmas stockings. Once Uncle Clive had shown us the way with the ZX80, and before the market polarised into Playstations for the kids and PC's for the moms and dads, we were the proud owners of these marvellous machines - VIC 20s, Spectrums, Dragons, MSX's, et al. - that were just designed to be big programmable calculators that plugged into the television. You could play games, run spreadsheets, the whole caboodle - but the point was that you HAD to know exactly what the machine was doing in order to operate the damm thing at all. And if you wanted it to do anything other than run the five examples that came with the box, you had to program it yourself.

Suddenly magazines full of BASIC listings came flooding onto the market, and a new breed of programmer was born - the hacker. The country was full of 12 year olds in their bedrooms writing assembly code, dissasembling ROMs and doing things with the machine that the manufacturers thought were impossible. Up until this point (approx 1980), computer programmers were maths graduates who got to actually touch a terminal only after ten years of training. Computers were million-dollar boxes that were to be treated with respect.

While in the fourth year, I formed a company with a few friends and a teacher, and we started writing educational software. Afer sixth form, I went off to University to study computing. I lasted a year. Not only was the standard of programming primitive compared to the standard of the software we had been writing, but I realised that I had probably written more programs in 4 years at school than any of the lecturers had in their lives - and I owned my own computer, rather than a timeshare teminal.

So I left and joined the games industry, which was chock full of people like me. The sad thing is that 15 years later, those lecturers are still there, up and down the country. Of course they have progressed, but unfortunately the IT revolution has progressed faster. One of my golden rules, and certainly one that still holds true for many IT managers, is "Never hire the graduate". Three years away from the real world gives one a handicap that is very difficult to overcome. Not only that, but the additional handicap of 'computing' being adopted as part of the mainstream school curriculum means that todays 'creme-de-la-creme' are leaving campus not knowing how many bits are in a byte. Just think. Who imparted the 'necessary information' to the school teachers about what should be in the National Curriculum Computer Studies?

There actually was an 'A' level computer studies course at our local college when I was in the sixth form. I took the exam without going to any of the lessons, and got an 'A'. It was a joke - questions about hardware that was already extinct and programming problems that could have been solved by a chimpanzee. (In fact, I subsequently wrote a letter of complaint to the examining board. One of the requirements of the exam was to use a GOTO statement - a practice frowned upon by the cogniscenti.) The point is I, and everybody who owned one of the mighty micros, had learnt the subject by ourselves. We knew who George Boole was, because we had to know how to perform Boolean algebra just to try to fit "Death Invaders" into 16K.

Nowadays though, George is up there with William the Conqueror and Samuel Pepys - just another boring Dead White Male that the teachers drone on about. Boolean algebra is something you get lectures on in stuffy schoolrooms while you'd rather be outside playing football. And whereas my mighty micro used to boot up in 2 seconds and be READY>, Bill's machines take 3 minutes to boot and a degree in Computer Science to operate. Now that's progress.

faxfn Note 1: Ben Daglish was one of the early staff at Gremlin Graphics - a company which specialised in computer games started in Sheffield some ten years ago. It was recently reported as being sold for just over 22m.

faxfn Note 2: Computer Weekly has run several pieces on IT graduates. The issue of 18th March 1999 has three articles on its front page about the "serious mismatch between the skills taught to IT graduates in universities and the skills business needs". The Alliance for Information System Skills is reported as saying "IT graduates are not getting into IT jobs and non-IT graduates are".