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Michael Mercieca: We help the young “learn by doing” in ways an academic curriculum cannot match

'Freelancing Matters' interviews Young Enterprise CEO


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Michael Mercieca: Generation Game

The way we approach ‘work’ is changing. More and more people are choosing to leave traditional employment behind and go it alone as independent professionals.

With the rise of new industries such as digital technology and new media, this way of working is no longer the preserve of the vastly experienced among us. Recognising this, in recent years, there has been a huge focus from government on encouraging ‘enterprise’ among young people.

But by filling their heads with dreams of entrepreneurial success without arming them with the skills they need to make it in business on their own account, are we setting up our young people for failure?

As we move into 2014, the only Level 3 qualification (the A-Level equivalent) that includes a mandatory module on freelancing is Beauty.

Young Enterprise, the UK’s largest enterprise education charity, was founded in 1962. On average, it works with 220,000 young people aged 4 to 25 in 5,000 schools, colleges and universities every year. In the spring of 2013, Young Enterprise launched the Tenner programme, a competition that challenges young teenagers to take a loan of £10 and do something enterprising with it.

FM Editor Louis Clark sat down with Michael Mercieca, CEO of the initiative, to discuss the current state of the education system when it comes to leaving it and running a successful business – large or small.

LC: Do you think some areas of business suit ‘enterprise’ more than others? Are there any areas that are really popular with young people at the moment?

MM: I can probably best answer this by referring to our research. With help from Kingston University Business School, we conducted extensive surveys, interviews and focus groups with 371 Young Enterprise alumni and a similar number of non-alumni.

This investigation revealed businesses run by Young Enterprise alumni are highly diverse and often very innovative. The largest group was digital businesses.

This contrasts strongly with the typical British small firm. Latest national statistics show that the largest proportion of small firms are in construction (19.3%). This is followed by professional, scientific and technical areas (13.3%). The third largest sector, based on national statistics, is the wholesale, retail and repair sector (10.7%).

A significant proportion of firms run by Young Enterprise alumni are digital and cloud computing-based businesses (21.2%). These include cloud infrastructure services and platforms, storage, and service-oriented architecture.

One alumni firm provides mathematical modelling and bespoke application development. The second largest category of Young Enterprise alumni businesses is professional, scientific, technological, legal and accounting consultancies (18.6%).

Next comes engineering and technology design (10.3%), with their owners saying their firms provided advanced engineering and product development; engineering solutions; high pressure engineering; and environmental technologies.

LC: Do students currently leave education knowing how to run a business? Do you even think students should learn this, or should they be picking it up as they go through work?

MM: Even though Britain is reputed to have one of the best education systems in the world, Young

Enterprise believes it focuses too much on teaching facts ‘at’ young people and testing them. It does not do enough to unleash students’ hidden talents and creativity and help them acquire the softer ‘employability’ skills that employers are crying out for.

A recent Young Enterprise survey of 400 chief executives funded by Citi Foundation found that, as a result of this style of teaching, 70% of UK employers say it is difficult to find good quality applicants for entry-level jobs compared with Spain (56%), France (52%) and Germany (75%). Some 43% of chief executives said the UK education system is not equipping young people with the skills for them to enter the workforce, compared with an average of 21% across France, Spain and Germany. Meanwhile, 92% of UK employers said it is important to offer enterprise education as part of the national curriculum.

The top five skills British employers believe young people should have when entering the workforce are: communication and literacy, positive attitude, self-management, people skills and team working. But, ironically, the top five skills they lack most when they turn up for an interview are: self-management, communication and literacy, people skills, positive attitude and confidence.

“Some 43% of chief executives said the UK education system is not equipping young people with the skills for them to enter the workforce”

So, yes, Young Enterprise believes young people should learn these skills during their education, rather than haphazardly hoping to pick them up afterwards. This is what Young Enterprise was created in 1962 to do. Since that time we have helped 3.8 million young people aged between 4 and 25 by exposing them in the classroom to the excitement involved in business ; they ‘learn by doing’ in ways that a purely academic curriculum cannot match.

LC: Are there any downsides to young people being taught about freelancing, enterprise and overall self-employment as an option before they start their professional career?

MM:  No, the very reverse. Some of our previous research showed students are much more likely to be encouraged to become a professional footballer by their school than an entrepreneur! Young Enterprise argues that an excessively narrow focus on academic skills and exams risks sidelining other approaches to learning and can fail to give young people the employability skills they need – such as teamwork, practical thinking, punctuality and businesslike behaviour – to succeed in the world of work.

LC: Should the ‘business basics’, like how to register a business at Companies House and how to fill out a tax return, be on the curriculum for all students?

MM: No, we would never argue that such things should be included in the curriculum and taught as a dry academic subject. In our experience, the best way to get this information across is to allow young people to encounter these issues as part of an exciting business project of their own. When the health of your enterprise – and the chance of it making a profit – are completely dependent on your decisions, these technical-sounding matters suddenly become very interesting indeed! Under our Company Programme, students raise capital by selling shares in their business; they undertake product development and production, market research and pricing and sales and marketing; they attend trade fairs to sell their goods or services; and they run board meetings. At the end of the July term they liquidate the company in the proper way. This involves accounting for and paying VAT and Corporation Tax. They rarely complain that this is boring!

LC: How do you see the world of work changing for young people in the next 10 years? Do you think more and more young people will ‘go solo’, or has it levelled out?

MM: No, it has not levelled out. I have predicted that we will see as much change in the next 20 years as there was in the last 100 years. My view is that businesses and ministers have acknowledged that for Britain’s economy to flourish in the future, youth unemployment needs to be eradicated now or the loss of talent and wealth will be crippling. While recognising the huge strategic importance of the issue is a good start, more policy makers and business people need to stop worrying about the quality of young recruits and start doing more to prepare our young people to compete in an austerity-hit marketplace.


Freelancing Matters is circulated to some 25,000 people, including:

Members of the PCG (Professional Contractors Group) is the largest association of independent professionals in the EU, representing freelancers, contractors and consultants from every sector of the economy

Also to:
Freelance contractors and consultants
Small business owners
Business advisers
Complementary organisations
Members of Parliament


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