UK: WANTED - GRADUATES WITH THAT OLD GET-UP-AND-GO. - Peter Wilsher sees a future on the Continent for those with degrees and ambition.

by Peter Wilsher is a freelance consultant and writer.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Peter Wilsher sees a future on the Continent for those with degrees and ambition.

Jose Ignacio Lopez de Arriorta, whose cost-cutting wizardry at General Motors and subsequent scandal-drenched departure to Volkswagen (see also Management p16) made him by a wide margin the most newsworthy businessman of 1993, was born in the tiny North Spanish town of Amorebieta, on the road between Guernica and Bilbao. Everyone living there claims to remember little bespectacled Josein, who studied so hard and was so rotten at football. However rough the ride may become for him in distant Wolfsburg, to the locals he remains a hero who can do no wrong, who still speaks Basque as his most comfortable domestic language, and who will one day return to them when he retires from the international executive fray.

Such stories (though usually less spectacular) are becoming more common-place as Europe edges its way towards becoming a true single market. Ambitious and talented children from the back end of nowhere set off to seek, first education and then opportunity. Increasingly the most mouthwatering prospects are to be found far from their homelands, among those companies deliberately trying to move away from parochial roots. In boardroom after boardroom, the exotic outsider is no longer treated as an object of suspicion but as an invaluable asset.

The truly European enterprise, where such challenges are most freely on offer, has taken a long time to emerge. For a long time it looked as though only the Americans - most notably Ford, Exxon, IBM and Senor Lopez's former employer General Motors - and those long-established Anglo-Dutch exceptions Shell and Unilever, had really mastered the art of operating without bothering about cultural differences and internal frontiers. More of the natives seem to be acquiring this important knack. After several false starts, like Dunlop-Pirelli and Carnaud Metal Box, there is a growing list of successes. Asea Brown Boveri, Reed Elsevier, GEC Alsthom and now the newly-merged alliance of Renault and Volvo are all in the process of developing a fully-integrated, Continent-wide presence, and many other formidable groupings are developing along similar lines. The term 'citizen of Europe' looks like acquiring real meaning.

It is very disappointing to discover just how little appreciation of these significant developments appears to have penetrated those supposed citadels of far-sightedness and high intelligence, the British universities. When it comes to crossing the Channel in search of rewarding employment you are far more likely to find takers in such blue-collar categories as road hauliers and construction workers than among the nation's fledgling top managers.

To quantify this rather depressing perception, the Institute of Manpower Studies, based at the University of Sussex, has just completed a full-scale study on The Recruitment of UK Graduates to Work in Continental Europe. Its conclusions could hardly be starker. After checking and double-checking the figures, it transpires that, between 1987 and 1991, just 1.7% of the products of British higher education had sufficient drive, initiative or interest to draw themselves to the attention of a non-English-speaking employer (or an English-speaking one, come to that), if the interview involved anything as adventurous as boarding a ferry or plane.

That amounted to just over 4,000 individuals, of whom no fewer than 2,199 were women with first degrees, mostly in arts or modern languages, whose job destination was, overwhelmingly, some kind of teaching post. Admittedly the figures showed a slight growth over the period covered by the report - from 966 in the first year surveyed to 1,266 in the last - but even the most optimistic could see this progress as little better than tortoise-like, and there is little evidence that it is accelerating. Any future speeding-up is likely, in the glum words of the authors, Mike Everett and Carolyn Morris, to be 'steady but not dramatic'.

Seeking some explanation for this sluggishness, they concluded, after extensively interviewing the country's leading careers advisory services, that 'the most important factors were a lack of language ability among students; the fact that they do not possess the relevant skills and qualifications; difficulty in finding out about opportunities; and the fact that they were considered too young and inexperienced by Continental European recruiters'.

That last element could well have some weight, given the relatively mature age at which French and German students tend to complete their formal education. But the rest sound pretty pathetic, given that the UK has now been inside the so-called Common Market for more than two decades, and the academic world is awash with exchange initiatives like Erasmus and Comett. The general sense of wimpishness is only underlined by an observation elsewhere in the study, that 'the students most likely to get jobs on the Continent' are 'those whose family background had included some travelling and living on the Continent'. Whatever happened to those empire-building generations, whose most promising road to fortune meant leaving the village and taking the first ship out of London Docks?

Even today, there is a demand for that kind of get-up-and-go. Everett and Morris list 105 large European organisations, from the Dutch finance group ABM-Amro to the French steelmaker Usinor, who are willing to take on suitable UK graduates, if they can find them. And those hesitating at the water's edge (and pondering the graduate dole queue here at home) might usefully consider one further small statistic tucked away in the report. Europe may account for only 1.7% of Britain's graduate employment, but the percentage rises to 3.4% of those who actually get full-time jobs. So where is Heckmondwyke's answer to Jose Ignacio Lopez?

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