Monday, February 07, 2011

Apprenticeship

The BBC programme "The Apprentice" gives a highly distorted picture of business and apprenticeship, for the sake of popular entertainment. The programme shows a group of good-looking and confident young men and women being given a series of short tasks by a rather brusque businessman. One candidate is eliminated each week, and the survivor is promised a well-paid but unspecified job by the said businessman. In the BBC version screened in the UK, the role of brusque businessman is played by Lord Sugar, who made a fortune from Amstrad computers and other electronics.

The programme provides a fly-on-the-wall view of the candidates as they tackle the week's tasks, occasionally intercut with wry comments and face-pulling from the consultants who are employed to supervise them. Viewers imagine that they are getting a rounded and authentic picture of the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate, although we tend to see more of the flashes of idiocy and spite, than the solid and intelligent graft that produces real success. When Lord Sugar announces which candidate is to be fired each week, the viewer may then jump to conclusions about the relative importance of the different strengths and weaknesses as seen, not just in Lord Sugar's mind, but in the mind of any equally successful businessman, and this gives an extremely distorted impression of the characteristics that might be valued more generally in the business world.

I saw one programme in which the candidates were sent out to sell cheese, and the game was to see which team sold the most cheese in one day. In the real world, that would be a ridiculous way of assessing a person's business ability. If I were in Lord Sugar's position, the candidate I should want to hire would be the one who didn't necessarily sell much cheese on the first day, but went back and sold more cheese the second day, and continued to improve. Surely persistence and determination are far more important than beginners' luck?

In the present economic climate, there are many bright and ambitious but inexperienced young men and women, who are unable to find jobs that match their abilities and potential. This is a cruel waste. There are also many sectors (fashion, journalism, media, politics) where it seems the only route to a glamorous and well-paid job is to work as an unpaid intern for an extended period. This is unfair (because it tends to favour candidates from affluent families) and open to exploitation (because the interns are donating their labour to already profitable companies with no guarantee of getting anything in return).

The kind of arrangement I'd prefer is something between apprenticeship and internship, where young people can earn something and learn something and add value for themselves and their employers. Let's imagine a dairy businessman who really wants to find new outlets for his cheese. Let's suppose he employs a couple of inexperienced sales representatives, paying them reasonable commission and expenses, and giving them a fair amount of coaching, mentoring and support. This might be a full-time job, or more likely something that occupies the young person several hours a week alongside other less challenging jobs. Alternatively the coaching and mentoring are provided by retired business people on a voluntary basis.

Of course there are already some schemes of this kind, but there should be a lot more. I believe many successful small businesses would be willing and able to support such a scheme, and many young people would be eager to participate in such a scheme, which would undoubtedly enhance not only their CVs but their actual business experience. In a few years time, these young people will then form the backbone of the next generation of entrepreneurs. Lord Sugar cut his own business teeth selling cooked beetroot on a market stall. Where is the 21st century equivalent of this kind of experience?

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