“I got a detention for refusing to write a personal statement; now I work for Microsoft.”

In my role, I have the privilege of learning from young people. Working in a university, I’m surrounded by success stories: students starting their own business, landing £40K salaries on their placement years and getting positions at super trendy companies like Google or Microsoft.

My colleagues and I celebrate and admire these achievements, whilst simultaneously kicking ourselves for not doing something similar. Not that we had the option – our schools and parents sent us down a very narrow route to university without placement years or work experience. That could wait until after the fact.

How ridiculous does this sound now? In a world of students packing their summers with internships and purchasing billboards to land their first job. It’s why I’m so impressed by Katie and the story I’m about share. Here’s a person just starting out professionally and already wise enough to see through advice that would be detrimental to her career.

Mentors and why I look to the young

A previous line manager suggested that I get a mentor, but I’m yet to take the advice. Typically, a mentor is someone older, more experienced who can help you avoid the common pitfalls that befell them in their career. Good stuff, but not quite what I’m looking for.

I’ve noticed that the older I get, the less open to change and risk-taking I am. Having a mortgage, sanding down walls at the weekend and talking with my colleagues about the intricacies of finding a good plasterer, are certainly not the most fertile breeding grounds for innovation.

This is a generalisation, but I’m looking at patterns and trends, rather than stand-out cases. The majority of us aren’t entrepreneurial, we do great things and make positive changes in our organisations, but we look forward to going home in the evening. This is why I turn to young professionals.

For me, an essential ingredient for career development is to be inspired (a lot) and career hungry students and graduates, ready to sacrifice sleep to get a foot on the ladder, are the sort of people I want to be associated with. I think sometimes the youth of a generation can teach us far more about the future of work than established thought leaders. After all, it is rarely those at the top, the authority, who disrupt the status-quo.

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Introducing Katie

I first spoke to Katie when I was working on a campaign promoting degree apprenticeships. The purpose was simple: show how freaking amazing they are. I’ll do a follow-up post on this, but essentially a degree apprenticeship is when you study and work full-time, get paid and graduate without debt.

My. God.

If degree apprenticeships had been around when I was reading Heart of Darkness on the back seat of the 153 bus, I would have thrown the book out the window and written my application in blood.

Katie is a first-year Chartered Manager Degree Apprentice at Microsoft’s campus in Reading. At just 19 years old, she is already flying around the world, networking with the company’s top executives and dominating the Xbox Room during her lunch hour. Here she is (pictured front) with a couple other apprentices.

‘I was bored of a classroom environment,’ says Katie candidly, ‘I think the turning point was when we were forced to write personal statements in college. I sat there, none of us knew what we were doing but everyone was just writing. It’s like my friends were on auto-pilot.’

Research by student-focused website The Student Room shows that young people are waking up to the university alternative: 61% of prospective students are now interested in apprenticeships with 48% believing that apprenticeships do not lead to low employment, a viewed perpetuated by previous generations.

Apprentices at microsoft

Detention, detention and detention

Katie (right) laughs when she recalls her own lightbulb moment, ‘At the end of a personal statement session, a teacher came up to me and asked, “Where’s your work?” I tried to explain that I wasn’t interested in university and was exploring other options… I was given a detention. DETENTION! My first ever, for not writing a personal statement.’

Surrounded by fellow rebels, she used her time to research alternatives to university, ‘I searched apprenticeships online and found two I wanted to apply for. Microsoft and another company that took my fancy. I prepared draft applications for both.’

As the detention ended, her tutor asked again about the absence of a statement. ‘I was pretty nervous, but I shared my research and the companies that were offering these new kinds of apprenticeships.’ Katie’s gamble paid off. ‘The tutor didn’t look too put out. From that moment on, things started making a lot more sense and I felt a lot happier about the way I was heading.’

It’s absurd that a teenager, willing to be enterprising and think of career-first, would be punished. A detention for not writing a personal statement? It’s a pretty extreme case, but perhaps not too unexpected. If teachers and schools are judged on how many students they channel through UCAS, rather than meeting student aspirations, then this will continue to happen. University professionals have a responsibility to ensure that careers advisors, parents and teachers are well-informed about the options available to young people.

When I visit schools to talk about degree apprenticeships, the audience always looks like they are hearing it for the first time. The teachers included. It’s 2018! We’ve had the global financial crash and huge youth unemployment, all within the last 10 years, yet education still privileges the three-year, campus-based degree. It’s madness. Universities and apprenticeship providers must be open, honest and share the great news about work-based courses. For example, Aston’s degree apprentices actually outperform (both academically and professionally) its traditional, campus-based students. It shocked me too. Somehow, these apprentices are working full-time, doing a degree and still getting exceptionally high results. It’s worth shouting about.

Katie and her life as a degree apprentice at Microsoft

Working at Microsoft isn’t just a job, it’s a lifestyle. The company is consistently ranked amongst the world’s top employers across pay, development opportunities and how it values its people. ‘It’s sort of like that film The Intern that follows the life of newbies at the Googleplex.’

The campus is made up of four buildings, each containing quirky workspaces. One moment you could be sitting on swings and surrounded by grass, the next you could be working from your laptop in the Minecraft Room. Each space is designed to get the best from its people – no harsh strip lighting or 70s cubicles – everything is open, even the meeting rooms. The culture reflects this too.

This all comes, of course, with one condition – you work your ass off. Katie explains, ‘The first year of my apprenticeship is designed to give me an all-around understanding of the business. I’m working and studying full-time. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it is extremely rewarding.’

As Microsoft’s first degree apprentice, Katie has helped organise a technology conference in Washington, led on an internal communications project and ticked off (optionally, as part of a module) the infamous ‘three peaks’ challenge – all within months.

Creating super-human young professionals

‘The beauty of a degree apprenticeship is that you can immediately apply what you learn to what you do. It’s better than learning a module and using it three years later. That wasn’t going to work for me.’

Katie will graduate in 2019 with three years global work experience, a bachelor’s degree, full Chartered Manager status and no debt. ‘I guess when you put it that way, it sounds pretty cool,’ she says ‘It’s hard work though!’

Katie’s advice to 2018 students is to ‘think beyond the subject you want to study’ to the kind of future you want to have. Keep yourself open to possibilities – even if it means a detention or two.

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