Category Archives: Apprenticeships

Will the university of life make a comeback?

Can careers be launched without a degree?

Graduates are flooding the market in ever-increasing numbers to very uncertain job prospects, many with significant debts to pay off for the privilege. Employers are sifting through thousands of applications from candidates with soft degrees covering courses as disparate as puppetry to the ubiquitous media studies qualification. Large numbers of graduates emerge from the process with seemingly limited life skills and even basic literacy and numeracy deficiencies. Companies complain about the difficulties of identifying talent and recruiters bemoan how woefully unprepared candidates from this age group are for the job search process.

Many parents are asking me the question is it really necessary today to go to university? Could their children launch a successful career without a college degree?

My answer is – that depends.


In general terms there is persuasive research that there is indeed a correlation between completed further education and anticipated future earnings. There are also specific careers where having a university education will certainly be mandatory, simply because of an absolute need to guarantee a high level knowledge base within a certain field. I’m thinking of the traditional “hard” courses: medicine, sciences, engineering or law. I would definitely not want to have an unqualified doctor perform surgery on me, or to cross a bridge not built by an engineer or have untrained chemists create drugs (although many do – but nothing legal). There has been a proliferation of soft courses during times of prosperity and certain vocational occupations where entry previously was via school-leaving qualifications and on the job training, now require a university degree. But will this change in harder economic times?

Strong educational achievements are generally perceived, not necessarily correctly, to be a formal indicator of a higher level of general intelligence, focus and diligence. Those of us that know students, understand well that university can be about none of the above for many. But whether universities produce candidates who are better equipped for the workplace or even life itself is one of fierce debate.

Not having these qualifications does not suggest a lack of these skills or potential abilities – just a lack of proof via an education system. We all know that many successful people whether in business or other sectors did not go to university. Richard Branson, Mary Kay Ash, Bill Gates, Stephen Spielberg to name but a few. We have also been served in restaurants by waiters/waitresses with a whole string of letters after their names.

Economic change

As we have switched to what Peter Drucker describes as a ” knowledge based economy” , there has been a cultural and status shift from working with a product (hands) to working with information (the head). I’m wondering if now, as employers struggle to identify and weed out suitable talent and graduates have difficulty entering the workplace at the right level, how that will change.

Delayed maturity?

Robin Marantz Henig in an article for the New York Times “What is it about 20-somethings?” suggests that this age group are delaying the growing up process. As with most age groups my thoughts are that they are simply responding to the cultural, economic and technological developments of their time. As many countries have increased the number of students that complete further education, creating certain expectations in the process, we have recently seen a reduction of entry-level jobs with the worst economic downturn for many years. Having grown up in a relatively prosperous period, raised by parents who are affluent enough to support their children financially, sometimes until their mid 20s, many are now more than a little lost when those job prospects don’t materialise. They are returning to the family nest as Boomerang Kids, as home in luxury chez mum and dad, is infinitely more appealing than a lower standard house share which is what they can afford – if they can afford anything at all.

The banking system obligingly indulged, or dare I say it, created, a pattern of instant gratification by giving young ( non-working) people extended credit lines. Remember those ads “consolidate all your debts… go on a dream holiday now” and whole businesses grew up around a new trend for taking a gap year or even years, with parents paying thousands for their offsprings to dig a well in Africa or pick grapes in Australia. Technology has made communication instant , so they are not used to waiting ..for anything much at all, which is a source of frustration.


As we move into a period of economic uncertainty where all the goal posts are being moved, workplace structures are changing and I actually suspect it won’t matter how certain skills are acquired. Further education programmes, particularly the softer arts courses, will surely be cut as countries try to address the issues of chronic national debt. One thing to focus on for sure is the acquisition of real marketable skills. This can be done equally well outside a formal education system, as well as within it. Distance and e learning are emerging forces for adding to a qualification portfolio. We are already seeing a gentle return to the creation of old school apprenticeships.

What individuals do with their different experiences is what counts and that is not related to their educational level. Many of us have interviewed enough unemployable, unintelligible masters graduates to know that to be the case. I wonder if for the first time in many years the university of life will make a comeback and lose the stigma that became attached to it.

What do you think?

The enslavement of Gen Y

Unpaid interns: A new form of slave labour
We are all very aware of different forms of exploitation in the corporate world. I’m not even talking about sweat shops  or fields in emerging markets , but something that exists  in businesses right in front of our eyes, on our high streets and in our business parks and industrial estates.  In some cases these organisations are well-known household names: we watch their programmes, read their newspapers and magazines,  wear their clothes, go to their galleries or shops and buy their products.

I’m talking about the explosion of unpaid interns
One of my most popular posts is  “Unpaid internships: Opportunity or Exploitation? ”   As a result of this article I receive mails regularly  from interns, graduates, unemployed young people as well as parents, all commenting or asking about this issue.  I have a strong  interest in this as subject my son is currently working as an unpaid intern,  so I am tapped into that generation on a  very personal level. It also means that many of  my friends are supporting their graduates in these ” opportunities” with subsequent personal sacrifice. They actually feel, (as I do!) that they are  contributing to the bottom line of sometimes large and profitable international companies. Professionally, I coach and mentor some entry level graduates and see and empathise with their dilemmas.

Not only are these young adults working for nothing , some are not even getting reimbursement of their travel expenses or a sandwich at lunchtime.  The only light at the end of their very dubious tunnel is the promise of a reference, rather than a permanent job opportunity.   In many cases there are no training  programmes or even supervisory arrangements in place.   One graduate I am in contact with is being supervised by another unpaid intern  who has only 6 weeks more work experience  than he does!  The phrase the blind leading the blind comes to mind. Overtime is frequently demanded and he is pressurised to meet tight deadlines for specific commercial projects by working from home. One intern was even asked to bring his own computer (desk top)  into the office. Another graduate is working in an organisation where over 75% of the staff are made up of unpaid interns. Many graduates are now moving from one unpaid internship to another.  Increasingly, this seems to me  simply a way of getting some of the brightest and best of our young talent to  contribute to these organisations for free !

Intern explosion
The word  “intern” has slipped into global biz speak to convey some sort of traineeship or learning situation, replacing the older word apprentice, which had become slightly outmoded until very recently, when it re-surfaced on a  popular TV show by the same name. As the  stories of these young people unfold,  I begin to question the morality of a situation which seems to me to be a flagrant abuse of the economic downturn for corporate gain.  There seems to be a regression to the same exploitive employment practises that existed throughout the centuries, which ironically generations of campaigners have actually fought to eradicate.  Currently it seems that unpaid internships are exploding without restriction.

The history of apprenticeships  comes from the earliest times. In Egypt and Babylon, training in craft skills was organized to maintain an adequate number of craftsmen  and as a way of passing on skills to the next generation   In Europe in the Middle Ages families signed apprenticeship agreements and  sometimes paid stipends for their offspring to learn a trade to protect their long term economic well being.  But this was at a time when most children did not have access to formal education, when the number of apprenticeships a ” master” could hire was controlled. There was also another darker aspect of  the apprenticeship  system  where  “indentured servants” were simply exploited to provide a free service to their masters. But even these poor souls received some sort of board and lodging.

Legal situation
I know from my network that the intern system is internationally used and abused and although the implementation seems to be fuzzy, the legal framework seems to be clear! In the US, the Department of Labor has applied certain stipulations. The basic principle behind legal unpaid internships is simple – they should be for the benefit of the intern and the work should not involve anything operationally vital or replace the job of a full time permanent employee. This could include any basic tasks that helps support a business,  including routine administration work.    Mark Cuban owner of the Dallas Mavericks makes a valid point when he wanted to hire unpaid interns  “ Thus we would have to create work that is useless to us if we choose not to pay them.   How silly is that?” . . . Indeed interns themselves want to do something useful. But it begs the point why couldn’t they be paid – something at least.

According to Annabel Kaye,  Managing Director, Irenicon Ltd ,  a firm specialising in employment law based in Croydon,  Surrey, said  ” in the UK,  anyone performing work (whether as an employee or a worker) is entitled to the National Minimum Wage (at an appropriate level) unless they fall within specific and limited exemptions.  

 These include:  1) On specific government training schemes, or  2) On European Social Funded or Government funded placements of less than six weeks or 3) Volunteers working for a charity, voluntary organisation (such as a local community organisation) associated fund raising body or statutory body or 4) Students on a course involving  work experience of not more than one year.

 Individuals on an ‘internship’ leading to paid employment are often entitled to minimum wage throughout their ‘internship’ and paid employment period.   ”

Penalties for employers
There is no  doubt that this system is being abused. So are there deterrents?  Annabel told me that they are indeed quite significant in the UK at least ” If an organisation has underpaid minimum wage then the penalties are quite high once the wheels are in motion , apart from having to pay the intern the appropriate wages (going back over 3 years to all underpaid employees) ”    plus additional penalty payments.

However, a complaint has to be made,  not necessarily by the employee.  The young people themselves, fear reprisals and will not step up.  Her concern is  that  any complaints  about abuse will reduce the number of internships available “  The exploiters of interns will  bring down an enforcement regime , that will ultimately reduce the number of ‘good’ places as well as ‘bad’.”

I am not taking a stance on unpaid internships per se. There are excellent reasons why internships when entered into in the spirit they are intended can bring positive results for both  business and intern alike. Companies can benefit from fresh new talent and test them without going through an  expensive hiring and perhaps firing process.  This is especially helpful with new technologies,   giving  organisations access to knowledge and skills that would cost signficantly more if they used a normal consulting company.  Interns gain insights into the workings of their chosen sector and get used to a work structure after several years as students.

It can be a win/win. But  if the fine line between use and abuse is crossed,   it is no different from some historic forms of exploitation and slave labour.

What do you think?

Note :  For UK interns only :   Annabel suggests that anyone who is being (or has been) under paid can call the Pay and Work Rights Helpline on Tel 0800 917 2368. They take complaints from workers, employers and third parties 

Anyone on job seekers allowance (JSA) can undertake voluntary work as long as this does not detract from their job search or availability for interviews. The Government have made specific provision for unpaid internships of up to 13 weeks,  which can run alongside claiming JSA. Reimbursement of limited expenses should not affect Job Seekers allowance but should be declared to the Job Centre Plus Office. 

You can download a booklet on this from :

Special thanks to Annabel Kaye, Managing Director,  Irenicon Ltd : Airport House, Purley Way, Croydon, Surrey, CR0 0XZ , Tel:  08452 303050