Students find just the job to earn a degree

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The Independent Online
FOR all the efforts to put relevance and practical application at the forefront of business education, on-the- job training still has a lowly image compared with its off- the-job cousin.

But if a new venture by Coca-Cola & Schweppes Beverages, the soft drinks company, takes off, it could deal a death blow not only to the 'sitting next to Nellie' approach but also to the way universities structure vocational courses.

The business established by Cadbury Schweppes and Coca-Cola seven years ago has launched what it believes is a unique training scheme to enable young people to obtain university degrees while holding down full-time jobs.

The company's managing director, Derek Williams, who developed the FrontLine initiative with Keith Dennis, the manpower director, points to more than 300 inquiries, received within hours after it was announced in last Thursday's Independent, as a sign of the scheme's likely appeal. (There is a further ad in today's recruitment pages.)

Pointing out that the squeeze on university places was creating disappointed school-leavers, he said those who found energy and determination in that disappointment might be the sort his company needed in seeking to confront a more competitive environment.

Priding itself on being an 'intelligent' and 'adaptive' organisation, CCSB - comfortably Britain's largest soft drinks company, with a pounds 750m turnover - is seeking to spread the concept of merchandising to counter the threats from competing suppliers, supermarkets establishing their own brands and consumers constantly changing their buying habits.

Merchandising, already popular in the United States, involves attempting to boost sales by such methods as improving the display of a company's goods and ensuring that outlets are constantly stocked up. While supermarkets have so far been reluctant to welcome the idea, it is proving popular with cash- and-carry operations and smaller stores. As a result, CCSB wants to make what has hitherto been a casual, part-time operation more professional.

This requires a different kind of person who - in Mr Williams' phrase - has 'a fast mind and a young body'. The combination is required to cope with the hard work of lifting and carrying crates for long periods while making decisions about routes and the like. 'It's not a hobby. We want people to have a round and service it,' said Mr Williams.

CCSB has budgeted for 93 students, plus several trainers. But if there are many more strong applicants, it might be able to take on more, while reducing the number if the standard is not high enough. Under what the company has dubbed an 'earn as you learn' deal, those selected will be expected to average a 35-hour working week, as well as put in 20 hours' study a week for four years. In return, they will be paid an initial salary of pounds 7,500, have the use of a van, receive free work clothes and have their tuition paid for a course in which success will result in a B Sc degree in management from London University.

Mr Williams freely admits that it is not an easy option and that - for all the apparent benefits - the primary motivation is self-interest. 'It is mixing commercial objectives with something that happens to have a community benefit as well,' he said.

The company's research of full-time students' habits concludes that it is 'quite possible to do a job and get a degree provided you organise it right'.

(Photograph omitted)