Opinion

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There is valuable talent outside of the graduate pool

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Higher education is still capturing the hearts of youngsters in the UK. Last year, the number increased again to leave more than 47 per cent queuing up for their degrees. 

More than three-quarters of graduate schemes demand a 2:1 as a minimum entry requirement from a top UK university. There has also been an 80 per cent rise in the number of students achieving a 2:1 or 1st class grade. 

Should a “good” degree be used as a key selection criterion by employers? Is that the best way to find the right talent for your company? In my opinion, we ought to do more to unearth talent outside of the graduate pool. 

Range of talent

During my career I have been fortunate to work with a range of talented people, some with university degrees, others not. Given the investment associated with a university degree, it should not be seen as an automatic route for today’s youth.

A recent FT article points out that apprentices in top quality schemes will actually be paid £50,000 more during their lifetime than most undergraduates. 

Unless candidates expect to achieve very high grades, or have their hearts set on a profession that requires an academic path, university might not be the best option.

I did not take the traditional university route. Having left school at 16 with no qualifications, I was fortunate enough to be given a chance via the government-funded Youth Training Scheme (YTS). This opened the door to my first job working for a very small IT supplier at a time when over 10 per cent of the population was unemployed. 

Though the pay was modest at £26 per week, work gave me a sense of achievement. Working quite simply gave me something invaluable that school had failed to teach me: self-belief.

Unfortunately the company closed down six months later. But by then I had enough experience and confidence to secure another position and became an admin clerk for an insurance company. I continued to grow in my career and, by the time I was 22, I was working for the Salomon Brothers investment bank in New York. 

Mentoring

I was lucky to encounter strong mentors in my early years and encouraged to gain work-related qualifications. First I completed a BTEC in business and finance and later on my CIMA certificate, which I completed by attending weekend school. Although this took a lot of hard work and the sacrifice of many weekends and evenings, it paid off. 

In a world where most professions select exclusively from a prestigious and elite group of graduates, I feel we are closing the doors to talented individuals who may thrive in the practical setting instead of a traditional educational setting. 

Not everyone is cut out for formal education. Many key competences, such as leadership and humbleness, are not instilled in a classroom setting. In my eyes, one of the most important skills in life is humility – it is often a key ingredient in the making of a great leader.

My team across Colt includes examples of very valuable people, some of whom, like me, did not go to university. 

Many people in the extended Colt team have benefited from YTS or apprenticeships schemes in the past as the stepping stone to the working world. The appetite is rife from mentors who want to offer the same opportunity to today’s generation.

I realise that opportunities today for young people in the UK to learn by being on the job are rare. That’s why we are looking to expand our intake of school leavers and apprentices. 

It’s about finding a better balance, nurturing people with different skills by creating more opportunities for young people to develop their talent and help us transform the business.

Hugo Eales is chief financial officer for Colt Technology Services.

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