A-Level Results - What next for young people in Britain?

As A-Level students across Britain contemplate their future, I wonder whether they are being given the best advice by parents, teachers and the media about what to do next?

With a current shortage of university places and jobs for graduates, high dropout rates from students that probably weren’t cut out for academia in the first place, and the BBC reporting that average student debt may reach £53,000 (yikes!) is going to university still the best option for our young people?
When I took my A Levels in 1995 I distinctly recall being told that going to university and getting a degree was the only way I could guarantee a bright future, or risk being left behind on the scrapheap. I wasn’t even sure that university was something I wanted to do but when I voiced these concerns to my dear parents I was told in no uncertain terms that ‘dropping out’ wasn’t an option.
Like most students I worked hard at university – ending up with a 2:1 in Geography BSc (Hons) at The University of Leeds, and had a fantastic time living away from home and enjoying myself to the full. I managed to maintain the right balance between having fun and putting the work in and I am proud of my degree and the experiences I had.
HOWEVER, my Geography degree has been of very little benefit to my career which has mostly been in IT/web/marketing (with a brief sojourn into the music business as a DJ / producer / promoter / record label owner).
For example;
Sage – no degree needed
Upon graduation in 1998, I travelled the length and breadth of the country in search of the ‘holy grail’ – a graduate recruitment scheme with a top employer, only to have my hopes and dreams dashed again and again by what seemed like endless interviews, assessment days and psychometric tests – until I eventually found employment with Sage, a local hero up here in the North East providing tech support to users of their Sage Payroll software.

I spent 2yrs at Sage and the customer service training they provided was first rate and still benefits me to this day. However, when I joined Sage it was slightly demoralising to find that you didn’t actually need a degree to get a job there, and very few of my colleagues seemed to have set foot in a university – although they were all extremely intelligent, quick thinking and with excellent customer service skills, groomed and honed on the job by regular training and tests.
British Airways – degree needed
After a while, I grew tired of ‘working on the phones’ at Sage and after teaching myself web design in my spare time, was lucky enough to be taken on by British Airways as a graduate trainee web developer / web editor in their Newcastle upon Tyne office.

There’s no doubt I wouldn’t have been taken on as part of a ‘graduate training scheme’ without my degree, but my previous 2yrs work experience and the web design skills I had taught myself in my spare time were ultimately more important and useful to the job. The degree just helped me get through the initial sift of applicants. Sadly, although this was an excellent job, I was one of many staff made redundant by BA as a direct result of the 9/11 attacks which meant the airline was haemorrhaging money and needed to cut costs quickly (staff are always the first to go).
An unintended ‘year out’

The next 12 months were spent in and out of employment as I worked intermittently on short term IT contracts, signing on the dole and trying to break into the music business as a DJ / producer getting the first of my records signed to a local independent label, until eventually…

BT Broadband – no degree needed

After realising that I did actually need some money to support my ‘superstar DJ lifestyle’ which hadn’t yet resulted in a huge pay-off, I got a job again in tech support for BT Broadband. This was probably the most depressing period as I hated the job, was only doing it for bit of extra cash until the DJing / music, and again found out that a degree was of no real value or worth to my new employers. Needless to say, I didn’t stick around long before applying for, and getting a job with music development agency Generator…

Generator – no degree needed

On paper, this should have been my dream job. Working in an organisation that helped grass roots musicians (like myself) make it into the music industry whilst I spent my evenings and weekends as a DJ / producer / promoter / label owner. There’s no doubt there was a definite ‘cool factor’ to this job and I learnt a lot during my time, particularly by working alongside legendary North East promoter Jim Mawdsley. There were also lots of highlights, including getting to see Maximo Park and Field Music when they were still unknown outside of Newcastle/Sunderland and (possibly) playing a small part in getting them signed by telling the A&R scouts that travelled up to Generator-sponsored events that they needed to see these bands!

Like many creative industry jobs, the money at Generator was just too low for me and after getting increasingly frustrated that I wasn’t being paid or valued enough for someone with my background, skills, experience (and degree) I left to join local enterprise agency PNE Group where I’ve now been for the past 5yrs (since 2005).

PNE Group / Shell LiveWIRE – degree needed? Maybe…

Although I’m not actually sure if the degree got me the job, I’m 100% certain that it’s all the experience, skills and knowledge I have accumulated along the way since leaving university that has been of most value to PNE in my previous roles working on the voluntaryskills.com website and now as Web Development Executive for Shell LiveWIRE (run by PNE on behalf of Shell).

It’s easy for me to criticise universities when I’ve already got a degree, but that’s not really my point. In recent years I’ve just been increasingly thinking that academia isn’t right for everyone. Yes, education is important but you can learn on the job (incl. apprenticeships) and do evening classes or home study through people like the Open University or for professional qualifications with bodies like The Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM). Also, instead of saddling yourself with huge debts when you leave university, you be earning money by working for someone else (building up your savings to go towards a home in the future) or even starting your own little enterprise, with free help and funding from organisations like Shell LiveWIRE.

Many people go on about the invaluable experience of going to university which they see as more important than the qualification. However, I’d argue that for much less than £53,000 you can have even more amazing experiences travelling the world, working for yourself, doing charitable work in another country – the list is endless – and at the end of it be an even more interesting and employable person than ‘a.n.other graduate’. Something to think about at least.

Above all, my advice it to keep your options open and to ‘Stay Curious’, living your life in ‘Permanent Beta‘.

Confidence - The Stuff Entrepreneurs Are Made Of

This article was originally written for and published on Upmarket - the US-based online business magazine at http://upmarket.squidoo.com/2012/04/03/confidence-the-stuff-entrepreneurs-are-made-of/

Over the past three years I’ve worked with thousands of start-ups across the UK, and have come to the conclusion that confidence is the number one ingredient that entrepreneurs need if they are to succeed in business.

Although funding (or the lack of it) is regularly cited as a barrier to starting a business, it’s really the mindset and attitude of the founder that is more important than anything else. Let me qualify this statement.

Working for one of the UK’s longest running youth enterprise programmes means I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many hundreds of entrepreneurs at various stages in their career including some of the most successful business people in the country. They all share a common trait with each other which is an unshakeable self-belief in what they are doing and the path they have chosen.

There’s a long-running argument in the business world about whether entrepreneurs are born or made but I’m now a firm believer in the latter. Confidence is born out of experience and so the more varied experiences you are exposed to the more confident you will become. In particular, it appears that if someone experiences a positive outcome to their entrepreneurial activities early on in life (no matter how small), they are highly likely to repeat this behaviour again. It’s almost like a switch in their brain is flicked and they start to see things differently to everyone else around them.

It sounds like a cliché, but I’ve lost count of the number of entrepreneurs who talk fondly about their time washing cars as a kid or selling sweets in the playground which gave them an early taste for business and set them on the entrepreneurial path. Lord Sugar (the UK equivalent of Donald Trump on our version of The Apprentice) caused controversy recently by saying that ‘If parents don’t send their kids out to make money by the age of 13, they’ll become lazy dreamers!’ He may have a point but I don’t think it’s ever too late to train yourself to think in a more entrepreneurial way.

In my own life, my main focus at school and university was always on ‘getting good grades’ (whilst having fun along the way) which would eventually lead to ‘a good job’ with ‘a good company’. I’ve been fortunate to work for some fantastic companies over the years but I’ve also had some setbacks too – including being made redundant and out of work for almost a year in 2001 which took a long while for my career (and finances) to recover from. However, I actually see this as a positive period as it allowed me to spend more time at home with my family, reflect on what I really wanted to do with my life and pursue a career in the music industry for the next few years before pivoting again into the not-for-profit sector where I have been ever since.

Each new role and the experiences they brought have made me stronger and more confident in my own abilities to learn new skills and adapt to previously unknown situations. It’s given me a much broader perspective on life and in work which means I am always eager to learn and quick to adopt new ideas. My personal motto is ‘Stay Curious’ as I feel you can never stop learning and growing as a person which is what Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha mean by living your life in ‘Permanent Beta’ in their new book The Start-Up Of You. This attitude and confidence, plus the fact I am working with start-ups every day means I have become more entrepreneurial in my role and can see opportunities for new projects and collaboration everywhere I look.

But what if you didn’t catch the entrepreneurial bug as a kid or jour job doesn’t inspire you to think like an entrepreneur? What can you do to build up your confidence and train yourself to be an entrepreneur (or intrapreneur)?

Some ideas you could try:

  • Read widely – the fact you are here suggests you are curious about personal and professional development but there are many great websites and blogs out there as well as Upmarket. I recommend not just reading online though. It’s still good to get away from your device and I still get a lot of inspiration from reading a physical newspaper, magazine or book. If you want to open your mind, I recommend reading any of The Domino Project books, preferably starting with Poke The Box by Seth Godin.
  • Talk to people – although we’re living an increasingly virtual world, you must never stop meeting and talking to people face to face. Too many problems at work are caused by poor communication within teams so perhaps you could try a No Email Day so you can build up greater rapport with your colleagues, even if it’s just getting away from your desk for a coffee in another part of the office. Human beings are inherently social and real conversations ebb and flow and meander into all kinds of interesting directions which can result in fantastic innovation if you let them.
  • Network – people always talk about the importance of networking but not many people do it right. There are so many ways to network these days, both online and offline but it’s important to try and do it with a goal in mind. Remember though, networking without a purpose is just socialising!
  • Create opportunities – why not start your own informal networking events for similar, like-minded people with a shared interest to gather? The trick here is to keep the agenda loose rather than define a structured event and let the events evolve and form around the people who attend. For example, in June 2011 I started hosting informal, after work events for local developers, designers and start-ups in my city which now attract 50 people each week. The events are free to attend and the format is simply to have one or two speakers on a theme, followed by relaxed drinks in the bar next door (where the really interesting conversations happen)!
  • Enter Awards / Competitions - I’ve seen first-hand how even just a small amount of money or just the kudos of winning an award for their work can be a real boost to an entrepreneur. Time and again the feedback we receive for the start-up awards we give out is that although the (small) amount of cash was what attracted them to the competition in the first place, it was the confidence and validation that winning gave them that was the biggest benefit. More than money, awards can generate fantastic PR for your business and open doors to more opportunities down the line.
  • Scare yourself – the only way to grow and develop both personally and professionally is to try things that you previously couldn’t do. Fear is a completely normal and natural feeling to have if you are in a dangerous environment but is usually irrational and without substance. Even if things go wrong, the negative outcome of doing something is rarely as bad as you think it will be and unless you try you’ll never know if you can do it. A good example of this is public speaking. Most people are afraid of speaking in public but the more you do it the easier it gets. If this sounds like you, why not put yourself forward to speak at an event on a topic you are passionate about? The fear and nerves will make you try harder and once you’ve done it the fear will be gone forever. Follow the fear. If you’re afraid of something, that’s where you should go next!