Enterprising graduates go DIY

College leavers have seen the future and it is self-employed.
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The Independent Online
A fleeting glance at a silver ring in a magazine was the moment that 24-year-old social science graduate Jane Cheshire's future was determined. Then an undergraduate, she had little hope of finding a job. Now, she is a successful self-employed businesswoman and creator of fine jewellery cast from natural objects - shells, fossils, nuts and berries - in pewter. Her work has been featured in national magazines such as Good Housekeeping, 19 and Marie-Claire and is sold through John Lewis and The Natural World.

She made the ring she had seen, sold it to a shop for pounds 80 and was asked to make more. The die was cast, and Jane embarked on a course to help her to develop business skills while still at university. When she was on the dole, she attended an employment training course to perfect the skills she needed to design and manufacture jewellery. Her company, Chameleon, is in its third year of trading.

"Perseverance and a good business plan are essential for success," she says. "You have to have confidence in yourself and your product, know your market - and be prepared to invest in its promotion."

"Jane is one of over 500,000 self-employed people in the UK," says Andrew James of Home Run - a magazine offering help and advice to those who want to manage their own businesses.

There are 32 of them at the Wandsworth Youth Enterprise Centre (WYEC), where Jane is based. Subsidised workshops and offices are available for the first two years of operation and thereafter commercial rates are charged. Counsellors advise on and check cash flow and business development prospects each month. Every effort is made to ensure that these ventures do not fail. Being in business two years later is how success is measured - and 85 to 90 per cent of them are.

Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs) can also help the self-employed. But they are criticised by some for their inability to respond promptly and effectively to the needs of the individual. "It's like being put on a conveyor belt," said one disgruntled entrepreneur, who didn't wish to be named. "You've got to fit into the system, regardless of your circumstances."

By contrast, Emma Boote, 25, is full of praise for her TEC and the assistance she got. Her degree is in Oriental and African art and archaeology, and she is a partner in Strawberry Steel - a metalworking company set up a few weeks ago. Her business partner, Colin Comrie, 28, served an apprenticeship as an engineer, and now has a degree in art and design.

Emma accepts that her degree did not prepare her for working with molten metal and a blow torch, but wouldn't have missed the experience for the world. "It was part of growing up," she says.

The WYEC opened in 1993 and now accommodates 25 companies. There are 28 similar centres around the country.

"More than 30 per cent of our clients are graduates and most of them have degrees that have little direct bearing on their businesses," says Michael Manning-Prior, manager of the WYEC. Andrew James, of Home Run, agrees and would like to see greater emphasis put on selling, negotiating and presentation skills as a preparation for work. "These are the essential life skills for this generation," he says. All of the graduates are agreed, though, that their university education was an essential part of their personal development.

For generations, students have decided on careers after graduation, rather than before. The difference is that a third of school-leavers are on full-time degree courses, compared with just one in seven 12 years ago. There is now less opportunity to get a job without a degree. That, coupled with the loss of the "job for life", means that self-employment will become the norm, rather than the exception. It will be chosen by more and more graduates who have innovative ideas - despite, or because of, their university experience.

The author is editor of 'Business Matters', published by the Associated Examining Board.