Focus on the job in hand and graduates will follow

A ‘sexy’ image overhaul isn’t the way to graduates’ hearts. If business wants to attract the young, it must simply show a talent for what it does, says George Pitcher

I know of no children who want to develop a career in business when they leave school. I have four children aged between seven and 17 years and, while we shouldn’t expect the youngest to express a career choice beyond wanting to be a taxi driver and own a spaceship, I would have thought I’d have bumped into parents with children who are budding entrepreneurs, marketing managers or insurance brokers.

Particularly since my children are at a fairly representative spread of state, public and boarding schools. True, they are all at schools in the relatively prosperous and spoilt-brat South-east of England, where the prospective career path must be at its widest and the possible range of choice set at its most self-indulgent.

But that can cut both ways. South-eastern children also have the most role models in the prosperous business classes and possibly the greatest encouragement and nepotistic opportunity from parents and other family members already established in business careers.

Yet not at a single school gate, not at any parents’ meeting, not in any overheard conversations from the back of the people carrier on teenage taxi runs have I heard a single expression of interest in a business career.

I suppose a case might be made for some of the (predominantly male) expressions of interest in writing the cleverest piece of computer software ever. But this is never framed in a desire for a career in the software industry. Rather, it is about wanting to create a cool new game and, as such, is closer to the older desire of budding creative artists to write a ground-breaking novel.

I don’t know whether this is worrying. Probably not. Perhaps it is even encouraging – youth is for dreaming and it is only natural to want to be David Beckham rather than the chief executive of Manchester United (whoever that may be). There is time enough for compromise in the years to come.

But it becomes an issue when industries that are clearly unattractive to the new generation of employment seek to make themselves alluring to young graduates. One such attempt is being made by a company called A Sure Talent (AST), which is adapting a service pioneered in Holland for encouraging young people into the insurance industry.

I’ll stick my neck out – in the absence of empirical evidence – and suggest that a life in insurance is not the most popular aspiration of those leaving further education. Indeed, AST’s declared aim appears to be to address the industry’s “unsexy” image.

How it works is that AST hires graduates straight from university on £20,000 a year (not bad, even by London standards), provides information technology training and commits to providing them with assignments with at least four insurers over two years. AST makes its money by charging fees to the employers.

I imagine that the insurance industry is willing to pay such fees, not just to get good part-time talent, but also to demonstrate that risk assessment and actuarial assessment can be wickedly glamorous.

But I take a different view. What is essentially “sexy” to talented young people is talent itself. Being important, or even rich, is not nearly as attractive as being very good at something. It is what underpins the youthful desire for fame – to the young mind, fame is the consequence of being very good at what you do.

It follows that the insurance industry is not “sexy” because it is not good at what it does. UK insurance companies have been rubbish over the past generation, failing to deliver projected returns during the most protracted boom in equities markets ever and cutting bonuses almost as soon as those markets turned against them.

No amount of manipulation of the industry’s image can make it look like anything other than a job for losers. Like the pensions industry, which awarded contributions holidays to its clients during the years of plenty and now cannot deliver secure retirements to the country’s workforce, insurers are consequently about as sexy to a young person as a damp day’s revision for an AS level.

What young people find attractive is people who are good at what they do. The old cliché is that nothing succeeds like success, but it’s true in this case. The presumption among potential employers too often is that nothing succeeds like excess.

So it’s widely assumed that the dot-com boom was driven by pony-tailed graduates who wanted to get rich quick. In reality, it was the bankers that were most avaricious when it came to the fast buck.

The principal motivation for most young entrepreneurs in Cambridgeshire’s Silicon Fen and beyond was that the UK was very good at developing IT solutions and they wanted to be part of that talent show. Many of these companies had good offers – it was the financial models on which they were built that were bogus.

The way for the insurance industry to attract young talent – as for any number of other UK businesses – is not to attempt some kind of sexy makeover, but to be good at what it does.

The closest to business that many of the brightest graduates will expose themselves is through professional services. But, so long as industries such as insurance are mediocre at what they do, we can’t be surprised if such graduates plump instead for careers in the media, the arts or academia, where at least they can strut their stuff.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon


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