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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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad