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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage