I was asked by SpinLondon to give a talk on 7 Nov 2013 at Coventry University on the theme “Employability, Entreneurship and Engagement”. I subtitled my talk “warning and encouragement to young people”. This is the script of that talk:
In the film “Wall Street”, Michael Douglas starts a talk to students with the words “you are f..ked”.
I would like to use the same term now when speaking of your employability.
My parents tried to make things better for you: they fought a world war and then build a world in which people had employment, security, retirement funds, healthcare. A world in which investments and hard work brought back a return on investment which made the sacrifice worthwhile. Today, everything has changed. Perhaps too much power in the hands of a few very wealthy people has destroyed the ideals for which my parents worked, or perhaps that was their ideal? My generation has presided over the destruction of what our civilization was supposed to be, your generation will pay the consequences.
I am of the age which was offered free education, and my parents had good pensions; I do not have a pension worth talking about, and my children’s education was expensive. You are stuck with both debt and parents. You will not have a pension and the universal healthcare system is broke.
I would like to apologise for your shattered dreams on behalf of those who went before you.
During the twentieth century, a new form of life evolved: the Corporation. This also was not meant to be. It is a selfish beast which has outgrown its creators and taken on a life of its own. How did this happen?
Many centuries ago, people decided that they could offer services to their companions, their neighbours, which would make life easier for all of them: you bake bread for me, I will hunt and provide meat for you, while another will sow and reap vegetables and fruit. This allows the community to survive and benefits everyone. As time went by, a new service developed: people needed something to identify how much work each one had provided to the community. Some probably felt that they were doing more than their share, while others appeared to be benefiting with little effort. This is, unfortunately, a key characteristic of humans (which probably includes most of you): we all wish to get advantages without too much worry or effort; we really would like to sleep and play more, and work less. The solution, apparently, was to create money and the corresponding, necessary financial services.
Sometime during the nineteenth century, the Corporation evolved out of these small shops and service providers. They became large, multinational organizations no longer aiming at providing added value to their neighbours. They grew into living creatures which, like the rest of us, exist solely for their own growth and survival. The concept of services, even financial services, was replaced by that of “business”. Corporations, like all living beings were no longer interested in primarily providing support and services to those in need, but sought instead to make as much money as possible for their own growth, placing the survival of their species above everything else.
These new beings, seeking to grow and assure the survival of their genes, ate other companies, merged and killed weaker organizations whenever they felt it would beneficial to their own interests. They are not interested in helping you or those who need support, they are only interested in identifying how they can use you.
They are not interesting in feeding you, only in feeding off you.
Intelligence vs. Education
Yes, this probably existed in all times, but it was limited. Greedy landlords mistreated their peasants, but they were naturally limited as to what they could do. Everything changed when large ships and trains, cars and planes could cross the world in very little time, once the telephone and telegraph, the fax machine and finally the Internet allowed us to communicate around the world instantaneously, everything changed. We moved from a labour based civilization to a communication based civilization. Now, we are moving from a knowledge based culture to an intelligence based culture – but the education system cannot keep up, they are still teaching you facts and techniques rather than cultivating your intelligence.
This contemporary world does not need you to know things, it needs you to understand things. The information is there, at your fingertips, but do you know how to process it, to understand it, to censor it, to use it?
Our education system appears to be going in the opposite direction. Education has been replaced by training people to pass tests. They continue to teach you facts which are readily available, but do not teach you how to think. It is more important today that your school, your college, your university gets a good score in the league tables than that the students learn how to use the infinite amount of data which is at their disposal. Art, that great liberator of the mind is ignored; history, the guide to the future, is forgotten.
You are particularly ill equipped to enter this brave new world. This world in which money is the new opiate of the masses, the new religion. And the Corporation is God, dispensing its blessings to those who please it, in the form of jobs, advertising budgets and research grants.
These new corporate monsters have evolved outside the control of their creators; created to provide something new, now they are looking for more of something old: they want you to do what they have sold previously, they want you to repeat the successes of past generations; but, to do it cheaper and faster. You are young and dynamic, you have not yet been taught what is impossible, so you are still able to be creative and original, but the Corporation will break you to make you to fit in the mould. Simon Cowell on X factor takes bright young singers and makes them sing someone else’s success from past years. He is not interested in originality or creativity, he is interested in proven money makers. Can I sell Céline Dion at the cost of Joe Nobody? Guest stars get a standing ovation, not for their talent or their performance, but for their bank account.
As the Corporation looks at you, they see a cheap provider of what someone else has done successfully. If you are too expensive, we can find warm bodies elsewhere, we can import labour from countries less demanding.
I regularly hear people today complaining that immigrants are taking our jobs and British people are unemployed; however, that is not really true. The British do not want the jobs that the immigrants are doing, and certainly not for those wages. Immigration is filling a gap in our marketplace. Young people in this country are being told that they need to go to university. But then, they are not finding work because they are over-skilled and expensive. And unemployed.
So, how do we break the cycle and make you employable?
If you want to be employable, the first thing you need to do is to get employed. Don’t worry about how much you think you should earn, go and get a job.
Do not expect to earn what you think you deserve: you are just beginners in your careers. Your first priority has to be to stop being beginners and get some real life experience, something that demonstrates that the theories you have been taught work – or don’t work – in the real world of customer demands, budget cuts, daily pressures and management changing priorities.
You should not earn what you think you deserve. Firstly, you do not deserve what you think: thousands of people out there know as much as you do, but have experience putting it into practice as well. The theories you learned in university count for very little, out there, in the real world, the rapidly changing world. Even the cutting edge theories will be outdated before next year.
The second reason you should not earn what you think you deserve is historical one, or, more precisely, a geo-political one.
In the last century, we went through an astonishing numbers of wars. Perhaps there were not more than what we should statistically expect as an historical average, but, with the telephone, telegraph and other mass media of communication outlets, these wars were better advertised and shared. As a consequence, rather than having a group of English men shooting arrows at a group of French men in an obscure village which would then be reported and go down in history with a spelling mistake, we had global conflicts in which nations from all continents participated.
After the last major European war, the great economic forces of Europe decided it would be a good idea to unite and create a free market in which economic partnership would be more interesting than geographical invasion. This would also give the union some more strength when faced with the massive power of the United Soviet Socialist Republics to our right and the United States of America to our left. So they created the United Europe.
This worked well and more countries decided they wanted to share in the economic benefits of a free market. At this point, political ambitions and megalomania took over again, just as it had under the previous warring systems. Countries which were not on an economic par with the rest joined the organization, starting with the United Kingdom, a nation which was all but bankrupt when it joined and benefited immensely from the open market with the 7 wealthier countries which formed the union. This expansion continued with other poor nations, such as Ireland, Spain, Greece, Poland, Romania, Ukraine… Every new poor nation which joined weakened the original union and created a new free market problem.
The big advantage of an ideal free market is that production self-regulates to match demand, prices balance each other out to reach a perfect equilibrium as people will only purchase goods based on the concept that they value the product or service more than the money it costs.
When the free market is about people and employment, the Corporation needs to decide how much it is willing to spend on wages, based on availability and demand. If an English student, with no experience is expecting to earn three times as much as a Romanian, the English one will not get the job. If we then find out that the Romanian has some practical experience, has held down a job, met with customers, withstood work pressures and deadlines, then, sorry, the English student has no chance whatsoever. Now, let’s add in the fact that the Romanian has seen poverty and is willing to work long and hard to get out of it, that she has benefited from an access to education and university which is as good as the British ones, and she has learned, through years of hardship, to do as she is told, and what do you get?
This is the great problem of the free market.
But, this is the great advantage of the free market: you have options open to you that my parents could not imagine in their wildest dreams. You can go work in Eastern Europe, in Russia, in North America, in Africa, anywhere in the world, if only you are willing to use the opportunities available to you.
When I graduated, I started my own business while looking for a job. I had no illusions that I could make it on my own, but I did not want to sit around collecting benefits I had not earned. After a while, I got a job – actually, I got two – so, I stayed for exactly one month at my first employer, then moved on to my second, I built up experience and met people. It is so incredibly important to meet people. I was head-hunted at the age of 28, I worked in Brussels, when the opportunity arose, I moved to Grenoble, in the French Alps, then to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was head-hunted again and moved back to France, then to England. The company I was working for got bought and closed by a Corporation. I went to work for a previous competitor, and finally, once again, I created my own company. This time, I had a reputation, my company’s success is based entirely on word of mouth reputation and personal recommendations; it led me to work in every continent except South America, where I hope to be going next year. I have missed some of my children’s birthdays, I have had to work on week-ends and holidays, but I have always carefully chosen what sacrifices I was willing to make, and what was asking too much. Every time I had the opportunity to move to another country, my wife had had the right of veto. Only now, has she said she no longer wants to move and so I have agreed that this is the land were we will end up.
Today, you face the choice of what to do with your future. You may sit at home and wait for a job to come your way. You may decide that you could not possibly move away from you neighbourhood, your village, your town, your city, your county, your country, but remember: you have no experience and every year your diploma’s value will shrink, your skills will be forgotten, your knowledge get more out dated. How long are you going to wait?
If you want to be employable, get a job. Accept that you are not going to find the job you want, or earn the salary you believe you deserve; because, if you don’t get a job, you will bypass your future completely.
I have worked in Romania, there is a very exciting and dynamic IT industry flourishing there – not for their own market, but for Western Europe. They speak good English, they work hard, they are creative and dynamic.
They are after your job.
The answer is not to reinstate a protectionist job market, close down the frontiers, and refuse immigrants: it is too late for that. The answer is to show the world that you are dynamic, enthusiastic and willing to go to the work, wherever it is. I have met Dutch people and Americans working for Romanian companies and they earn a very good living, proportionally. Their salary is not what it might have been in their own countries, but, compared to the local cost of living, it is very generous.
Be brave, go out and conquer! Meet as many people, as many employers as you can. Speak to them, but more importantly, listen to them. We all love a good listener, we are ingratiated to those who let us talk about our own interests; and you might learn something. Go out and take a risk, grab an opportunity. Trust me when I say that it is significantly easier to live with a mistake than it is with a regret.
If I was hiring, which I am not, I would be looking for dynamism, eagerness, humility and a willingness to learn. I would not hire someone who has an oversized sense of entitlement, but would offer the job to someone who is willing to fit into my business, share the team spirit, the vision, someone who wants to work and is willing to work at it, someone who admits to not having the answers, or even the right questions, but is willing to learn, to think, to create.
Personally, I would also be looking for someone with the aptitude for leadership, willing to try, able to motivate, accepting to move on from their successes and recognize their mistakes so that we all learn from them.
But I am not a Corporation.
 The battle of Agincourt did not happen anywhere near the town of Agincourt in Eastern France, but near the village of Azincourt in Northern France.