Saturday, June 22, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Back to School

Update : 24 May 2014, 06:46 PM

By 2008, the changing dynamics of tertiary education in UK, especially following the introduction, in England, of tuition fees, saw all four of the leading accounting firms revisiting recruiting practices that seemed to have died out with the dramatic increases in capacity for advanced studies. The “Big Four,” the major audit and accounting firms in UK, all working worldwide, PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and Ernst and Young had all revived the practice of recruitment of school leavers.

As someone whose corporate career, which, having included posts as Head of Marketing of Jaguar cars, and GM of SONY UK, has been described as successful, commenced as school leaver recruit to the Unilever giant’s Unilever Companies Management Development Scheme, the revival of such schemes grabbed my attention.

The Unilever programme ended its school leaver recruitment in the seventies, citing the development of business schools, and the free access to such institutions.

By 2014, the widespread reintroduction of the practice was reported by the Association of Graduate Recruitment of UK as accounting for inclusion in the programmes of over 54% of their members.

Financial services businesses, including the prestigious Bank of England, may have led the revival, but that 54% of businesses also include such FMCG giants as Nestle and Cadbury.

The move gives a warning light to the tertiary education business, as, around the world, including UK these days, it may reasonably be described.

Whilst few are referring to the quality of education delivered, and its failure, especially, in areas where personal skills require mental acuity in pursuit of profits, such as in financial services, that such businesses should be leading the chase, clearly raises questions.

More discretely, such as Gaenor Page, then Head of People, PwC, in 2008, commented: “For us, this is about getting the right people into the right place, at the right time for our business.”

Many, including myself, as chairman and CEO of a major advertising business, have had reason to question the delivery, by academic institutions, of effective education, especially in terms of managing thought processes, as distinct from memory. Even elementary skills, such as grammar and numeracy, have been conspicuously at lower levels of attainment.

Even in UK, rising levels of grades at examinations in schools have not been matched by the delivery of even the most basic skills, and where, especially, tertiary education is a business, in which the customers demand delivery of service quality, but a delivery that they can, as parents and guardians who pay for the service, only really judge by results of examinations, in which failure could damage reputations of institutions/businesses and must be treated with scepticism.

As an employer in UK of many thousands of employees, the certificates they bring with application have never mattered to me as much as personality, and evidence of achievements outside the classroom.

I am quite sure that this was also the approach of the interviewers who selected me for the Unilever programme. My academic record was far less distinguished than my “social” and sporting achievements.

As chairman of the regional Sixth Form Society, whose membership included, not only my own ancient Grammar School, but also leading public schools, and as President of Debating, and Chairman of Games Committee (despite my own lack of team sporting interests), it seemed, apparently, worthwhile to Unilever personnel to subject me to psychographic tests which lay at the foundation of their selection process.

(I have never been sure if my selection and posting to Lever Brothers, the soaps and detergents giant as, presumably, psychologically suited to marketing soaps, was the tribute to my personality and skills I suppose I should have regarded it!)

In Bangladesh, I have often found non-graduates more fluent in the use of English, as much, being less inhibited in its use, as anything, and certainly better equipped to deliver outcomes rather than being preoccupied by processes.

Since, in the real world, there is no such thing as “perfect English,” they are less inhibited in their communication, if less entirely literate. Universities, it appears, are not great developers of either physical or intellectual achievement, both qualities that are vital to successful performers in, especially, the private sector in competitive economies.

The constant appearance in social media of a roll call of the successful in, especially, the private sector, and the political, both requiring imagination, courage, initiative and flexibility, is an embarrassment that universities have learnt to live with. Names like Bill Gates and Richard Branson may be claimed to be exceptions.

However, research that I was asked by the major British investment bank 3is, to undertake in the 80s revealed, in profiling successful entrepreneurs that two thirds had characteristically left school at the age of 16, and most had gone bankrupt at least twice, before finally succeeding.

A profile that may well represent a challenge to financial institutions seeking potential winners to back, but also represents a challenge to business schools. University degrees in Entrepreneuralism flourished, briefly, but closed, in at least one university, when none of its graduates even attempted to become an entrepreneur.

The worldwide reversion to school leaver recruitment has not yet arrived in Bangladesh. Perhaps, opening vocational skills training programmes to offer companies a subcontracted programme in skills tailored to their needs might protect this business sector. However, it is hard to see how, in a truly competitive environment, companies can survive, based on the recruitment of wealthiest students from the most expensive universities.

Rather, as a Unilever recruiter put it to me, when I asked why I was posted to Lever Brothers, rather than to Van Den Burghs, their highly successful fats and margarine business: “Lever Brothers has to fight for every point of market share against some of the toughest competitors in the world, Procter and Gamble, and Colgate; they need street fighters. If Van Den Burgh gain more market share the Monopolies Commission will be all over them; it’s the place for gentlemen.”

Street fighter! Me! Well, I often wonder how stellar my career might have been if I’d opted for university. And that doesn’t only give me pause for thought. It must, I suspect, be giving the better businesses of Bangladesh pause for thought, too. And it needs to give young Bangladeshis, eyeing a career, reason to listen less to parents and teachers, and more to their own sense of self belief.

There can be little doubt that, as, increasingly, in the rest of the world, in Bangladesh, the first line of recruiters for effective management performance may well, soon, be forming at the school gate, rather than university graduation ceremonies.

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