A mind is a terrible thing to waste

Why parents should be encouraging young people to get experience in business rather than go to university and how SME’s can help, according to Natasha Courtenay-Smith

Last week, Talk Business’ Editor, Luke Garner, posed the question to readers of whether or not the abundance of young people now attending university makes seeing a degree on a job application largely uninteresting or unimportant.

university kid

Watching the debate unfold on Twitter, I felt compelled to step in.

Uninteresting and unimportant? In my mind, that’s an understatement. I would go as far as saying in many instances, degrees are a waste of time and money.

I believe that unless you are one of the few youngsters who definitely knows what they want to do in life, and a specific degree is required in order to do that (such as those who wish to be lawyers, doctors, marine biologists, architects and the like), there are far better, more powerful lessons to be learned elsewhere – and at a much lower cost!

As a parent, I’m not prepared to spend £9,000 per year (plus all the extra costs involved) sending my children to university if their reason for going turns out to be as vague as mine was; namely that everyone else is going and it sounds like fun. I would however spend £9k per year covering the cost of exposing my child to the basics of business in the real world – skills that will carry him or her forward for the rest of their lives. And as an SME owner, I have seen first-hand how businesses can offer learning experiences that far surpass those offered by universities.

Let me explain.

A lot has changed since I went to university in the mid-nineties to study psychology, a subject that I’m sure is hugely valuable if you actually want to be a psychologist, but I chose it because the prospectus said it only had five hours of lectures per week and I thought it sounded like fun.

Back then, although attendance levels were rising, university was free, (although my parents covered my rent and gave me spending money so it didn’t come at no financial cost to them at all).

I duly did my 5 hours of lectures per week for three years, and graduated from university with no idea what I wanted to do, until a love of magazines saw me fall into journalism. Although I didn’t have a journalism degree, I quickly learned on the job and went on to work at numerous national publications as a writer, including the Daily Mail, and in 2008, I launched my own press agency, Talk to the Press, in which I employed and trained (somewhat ironically given my own lack of industry qualifications) a number of journalism graduates.

The business went on to win a number of awards, including being short-listed for the exclusive news story of the year at this year’s National Association of Press Agency awards. And throughout, I remained struck by the bizarre juxtaposition that here I was with no journalism degree, running a press agency, employing people with journalism degrees, who, whatever they had learned at university had very little idea of how the mainstream popular press works, and were not able to hit the ground running.

What, I would wonder, was the point of the journalism degree they had spent years doing, and that (with my employees being students of the noughties) had either cost them or their parents financially.

Rather than join my agency at the age of 22 with a degree that hadn’t really taught them what they needed to know and thousands of pounds of debt, they would have been better off coming to me at 18, and learning the ways of the tabloid media through experience.

My thoughts on degrees crystallized in 2011, when alongside my press agency, I set up a second business importing and wholesaling Notting Hill themed souvenir bags to shops in Portobello Road.

This most basic business model that involved buying a product at one price, selling it on at another, was now revolving daily in front of me, as were the daily ins and outs of a working market. This, I understood, was it; the basics of all business in action, in the real world, in such a simple and clear way. I suddenly realised this was what I should have studied when I was 18 – not psychology, not journalism, but the basics of business.

For me, it all comes down to the fact that if you don’t know what you want to do in life, then a degree in one subject or another for the sake of a degree is pointless. It was pointless when it was free, and it’s even more pointless now it comes at great financial cost and everyone and their pet dog also has a degree.

By contrast, what would it cost for a parent to hire a market stall, set their child up with some stock, and let them get on with it, learn what sells, what doesn’t, how to talk to customers, how to control stock, how to reinvest profit, how to keep showing up and keep trying even on days when it doesn’t feel like it’s working?

Whether it’s done through a stall, or supporting a youngster through work experience or an apprenticeship, through loaning them money to start their own small business – there are many ways to help young people gain real experience of business basics, at a cost that would certainly be less than that of a degree, and even better, the lessons could be learned in a much shorter time period.

Everyone has degrees, but not everyone understands business. And if you do understand business, then you can work anywhere, and do anything.

The same skills that see you start off running a market stall or doing an apprenticeship in the retail industry could see you, over a three decade career, set up your own fashion brand, or rise to management or CEO of a hotel group. And as business owners, we can all open our arms to young people through mentoring and apprenticeships.

I’ve now sold my press agency, and am working as a coach, helping small business owners and entrepreneurs build businesses they can sell and prepare their exit strategy.

Alongside, I still have my wholesale cotton bag company, and through it, am introducing my 6 year old son to business. He knows how to count stock, and understands that when someone buys a bag, we get money. That, I think, is far more valuable than most of what I learned in my degree that I just did for the sake of it.

Natasha Courtenay-Smith is a London-based business coach and mentor who specialises in helping entrepreneurs build businesses they can sell and plan their exit strategy.

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