First published in the Sunday Times on 3rd January 2016.
What turns teenagers into productive adults? Society appears to place ever more emphasis on scholastic accomplishments, but I am not convinced we have the right priorities.
The number of 16 and 17-year-olds with part-time jobs fell from 42% in 1996 to 18% in 2014. I find this a worrying statistic. I believe I learnt almost as much from the jobs I did while growing up as I did from all my academic studying put together.
Every Christmas I had a job as a temporary postman; I worked turning rods on a lathe in an engineering factory; I took a summer job working in a pharmaceutical plant making various medical compounds; and over holidays while I was a medical student, I was a lab assistant at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington.
Each role was a different sort of education. I met people from varied backgrounds and learnt to turn up to work on time and carry out tasks properly, and I learnt the importance of earning my own wages. I can’t pretend I was the ideal employee — I think even then I had an eye on the main chance. But nevertheless they were invaluable experiences.
Lots of self-made billionaires started out in humble jobs when they were young, some working part-time through college. Michael Dell washed dishes in a Chinese restaurant; George Soros was a railway porter and waiter; Michael Bloomberg was a car park attendant; Warren Buffett worked in his grandfather’s grocery store; and Li Ka-shing worked in a plastics factory. I am sure each of those jobs was a formative ingredient in their subsequent successes.
Doing a paid job — even a somewhat mundane one — gives you a sense of freedom and achievement that sitting in a library or lecture theatre lacks. It also teaches you that many jobs are hard physical work — which instils the appropriate level of respect for those who graft away making the world go round. For ultimately, as the author Albert Camus wrote, “without work, all life goes rotten”. The great secret is to search for your niche, so you can agree with Noël Coward when he said: “Work is much more fun than fun.” I believe I acquired my work ethic from my parents and the holiday and part-time jobs I had before graduating from university.
Unfortunately there remains a disconnection between employers and the world of education. Many universities and schools do not teach relevant skills, or equip their students properly for the workplace. Meanwhile, most employers fail to engage with educational institutions and show teachers the shortcomings of the system. A City & Guilds report in 2013 noted the overinflated expectations of young people when it came to the jobs market — and how many had the wrong attitude for the workplace. A study by the University of British Columbia, in contrast, showed that teenagers who worked during the holidays gained a competitive advantage as adults, even if they took on a lower-grade job.
Together with the former education secretary Lord Baker and others a couple of years ago, I helped to launch a new type of educational charity called Career Colleges, which partners with further education institutions to offer vocational training for 14 to 19-year-olds in sectors such as hospitality, construction and healthcare — industries with growth potential and shortages of qualified staff. Our colleges team up with local employers to set the curriculums, so that students are familiar with the demands of the workplace when they graduate.
Unfortunately, when it comes to work experience, today’s students seem to focus almost exclusively on obtaining internships in fields where they want to spend their career. I receive regular requests from acquaintances seeking positions in private equity for their children. But if I were looking to employ a graduate fresh out of university, I might be more impressed if they had worked delivering newspapers, or in a butcher’s, or on a farm, than in predictable internships at an investment bank.
Real labour provides a broader perspective on life than the narrow confines of offices full of financiers. Actually carrying out a genuine, paid job — rather than a fake one (as most internships are) — teaches the importance of paying your way in the world. It is character forming to work with people from a variety of cultures and income levels, rather than sticking to the obvious middle-class professions.
More restrictive workplace regulations, additional homework, a proliferation of extracurricular activities and a lack of parental encouragement have combined to reduce the availability of part-time and holiday jobs to adolescents, and their take-up. But such practical participation can enable young people to obtain a maturity and worldliness that academia cannot provide. Even if a paid role is impossible, then down-to-earth volunteering opportunities are more worthwhile than simply cramming for exams all summer.
Plenty of university students spend more time on vacation than studying at college. They need to use their non-term time wisely — to understand what people actually do in factories, shops and warehouses every week to make ends meet, for example. It will help to make them more rounded human beings and better equipped to cope with the vagaries of life.