Work experience should count towards degrees: James Caan

Recruitment guru and BBC Dragon says that vocational skills are underrated.

The BBC Dragon and recruitment entrepreneur James Caan says work experience should count towards degrees, with students gaining extra marks from experience gained in the workplace.

Caan, who has a new book out this week called Get the Job You Really Want, was a late entrant to further education himself, graduating from Harvard Business School in 2003 although he started his first company in 1985. He had dropped out of school aged 16.

"I have found over the years that graduates can fill three pages with details of their dissertations yet tell prospective employers nothing about their practical experience," said Caan. "How does the employer know whether they have the discipline to turn up for work every day? Whether they can take on responsibility? Or whether they are prepared to knuckle down to a task?"

Caan added: "I was giving a talk at Cambridge University. There were 300 graduates in the room and I am sure many of them were sitting there thinking, 'I'd love to work for someone like James Caan'. Yet only a handful waited until the conference was finished and approached me directly. They were the few who had the confidence and the initiative to make their mark in the job market."

According to Caan, some universities are already considering methods of incorporating work and business skills in their degree programmes. Paul Jackson, director of student support and development at the University of Leicester, said the university is "looking closely at how to embed corporate skills into the curriculum at the undergraduate stage".

University College London (UCL) is believed to be looking at ways of translating job skills into degree credits and Durham University may also award additional marks for work experience.

Caan made his fortune after founding and subsequently selling the Alexander Mann recruitment company, also co-founding the headhunting firm Humana International, which he later sold. He called his first firm Alexander Mann to make it appear that there were at least two recruitment experts involved: Caan and the entirely fictitious Mann.

Speaking to the NS recently, Caan said: "While I was at Harvard Business School everyone kept talking about private equity, so I thought, 'I could do that.' " On his return to the UK he set up the private equity firm Hamilton Bradshaw, choosing the name almost randomly, he told us, "Because I wanted it to have a certain weight, and if anyone complained about something then I could tell them it was Hamilton or Bradshaw's fault."

Hamilton Bradshaw's investments now turn over more than £400m per year.

Caan also confided that, after he made no investments at all in the first week of Dragon's Den back in 2007, his wife urged him to take a stake in something, before people began to take him for being too risk-averse or even "a bit grumpy". He vowed to invest in the very next opportunity that came through the door, and that happened to be a firm making treadmills for dogs – Fit Fur Life.

Despite much ribbing from his rivals in Dragon's Den for investing £100,000 in the firm, he helped it triple its income in two years.

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.