THE BLOG

Britain's Hereditocracy, Ctd

05/08/2013 09:43 BST | Updated 01/10/2013 10:12 BST

If there's one thing that schools and educators need to address, it's this: nepotism and employment by patronage.

Lucy Kellaway in her recent BBC Radio 4 series, 'History of Office Life' made what for me was a haunting observation. But first, a little background. Ms Kellaway was looking at how Britain transitioned from an imperial economy that ran on the accepted policy of jobs-for-the-boys, to a somewhat more meritocratic one. Much of the change came about thanks to Charles Trevelyan. A man of questionable repute for those like me in Ireland, but that's neither here nor there. You can read about what exactly he did for Britain's employment habits on the BBC here.

Looking back on where we've come since Trevelyan, Lucy Kellaway said this on her Radio 4 show:

"Despite all the effort put into recruitment these last 100 years nepotism still isn't quite dead. Even Trevelyn found himself able to overlook his passionate belief in merit when it came to finding jobs for his own friends and relations. He was endlessly writing letters to grandees in India trying to secure a job for his brother; and also happy to give more distant relatives and cronies a leg up when needed.

It's all quite shocking. Or is it? Fast forward to the present day to see just how comfortably meritocracy and nepotism still co-exist.

To get a sought after internship at one of the big investment banks: what do you need? A great cv; a good degree; and a cracking cover letter. But if your dad also happens to play golf with the senior vice-president, well the job's as good as in the bag."

What a slap to the face for the less-well-connected. This is the reality that I and others had to put up with. We would spend hours and hours writing cover letters, editing our CVs, sitting and preparing for numerical, verbal reasoning and other stupid tests. Then we would go to selection days; like cattle in a shunting yard for recruiters to pick, look and prod at. Then we would be called back for a second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth interview.

While that well-off guy from class got his internship and then job thanks to his dad's verbal handiwork on the golf-course. It actually got to the stage where I said no more. Never again would I debase myself with selection days and writing cover letter after cover letter only to get rejection after rejection. I would let my writing online do the talking. But that story is for another day.

My main point today is not that we should stop successful parents from helping out their kids with advice, an internship or a job. That's definitely not what I want. What I want is for the children and young people without a well connected parent or family member, to get the same opportunities, insights and advantages that a well-off kid has.

I've said before: look at 'Big Brothers, Big Sisters' in America. This agency corrects exactly the problem of lack of contacts, information and skills.

What it does is put a well-informed adult in touch with a kid or teenager. From this position, the two can get to know each other and the young person can learn and benefit from that other person's deep knowledge and expertise, and even their contact list.

But it's more than just contacts that's the problem. The two big problems we're seeing at the moment is, one: Education's Information Asymmetry; and two: Education's Skills Asymmetry.

On the Information Problem: young people are choosing degrees like law without making much if any consideration for employment prospects, even though the head of the Law Society said that 1000s of young law students will never get a job in law.

But if you have a mentor they can intervene and make sure you make an informed judgement and therefore allocate your human capital properly.

On the Skills Problem, let it be said quite flatly: the economy has changed but university curricula haven't. What I'm trying to say is that many universities don't actually teach your skills that make its students into a good fit with the job market. So you know what that often means? Yep, joblessness...

But if you have a mentor they can again intervene and make sure that you pick up the appropriate skills to get a job.

The injustice of it all has been that to date, the well-informed parent can fill the information and skills deficit that educators have overseen. But if we give more less-well off young people a mentor and role model, we can spread the justice.

It was Karl Marx who said, "Man makes history but not in circumstances of his own choosing." For many the circumstances at home and even at school may not be ideal; but we can give them a decent chance by introducing them to people who have enjoyed great success and prosperity in their life.

You can read my first blog post on the Huffington Post UK on Britain's Hereditocracy here.