As 18-year-olds are recruited to be the next generation of spies, it’s time we re-thought what we mean by ‘graduate’ employment

I doubt if a university degree was ever really essential to working in espionage
  • @MsEllenEJones

What are today’s politically disengaged, tech-obsessed, dole-scrounging young good for? A career in international espionage, that’s what. Skills Minister Matthew Hancock has announced a two-year apprenticeships scheme starting next September which will recruit 18‑year‑old school leavers as “trainee spies” for MI5, MI6 and GCHQ. It might sound like a radical move, but modern spying requires several qualities that the Facebook generation have in abundance: tech-savvy, an apolitical outlook and a complete indifference to the concept of privacy.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu recognises this special aptitude of the young; in January he announced a cyber-espionage training programme for “future interceptors for the State of Israel”, aged 16-18. China is believed to employ thousands of people in their late teens and twenties in the world’s largest institutionalised hacking operation, while the US has just spent $1.5bn on a cybersecurity “Data Center” in Utah in a bid to keep up. Britain’s own spy kids scheme by contrast has only “dozens” of spaces available, leaving us roughly 964,900 jobs short of a solution to the youth unemployment crisis.

Non-graduates aged 21-30 have seen the sharpest rise in unemployment of any group since the 2008 crisis, but times are also bad for young people with degrees. The proportion of recent grads taking jobs that do not normally require degree-level skills has risen from 37 per cent in May 2001 to 47 per cent in May 2013. One unusual apprenticeship won’t change that, but it does point the way to a new approach to tackling youth unemployment. Instead of forcing graduates into non-grad jobs and non-grads into unemployment, perhaps it’s time to reassess which jobs really require a university education.

Once upon a time in the Cold War, wannabe agents of the British secret services need only matriculate at Oxbridge, then loiter around the cloister, awaiting their tap on the shoulder. Now that the job involves fewer café assignations with mysterious Russians and more sifting through mountains of ill-gotten computer data, it makes sense that recruitment and training processes change too. 

Even in the shoulder-tap days, was the university degree itself an essential foundation for being a spy? Or was it rather essential proof that you belonged to the right social class and possessed the required contacts? In Legacy, BBC2’s 70s‑set spy drama which airs this week, trainee spy Charles Thoroughgood is chosen for his first mission not because he aced his cryptography test and came top in umbrella poisoning, but because the KGB target was an old rowing chum from his Oxford days.

Espionage is not the only profession that has changed a lot since the Cold War and it’s not the only profession that should welcome an update to recruitment and training practices either. A well designed apprenticeship in many careers which are traditionally the preserve of the privileged – politics, journalism, publishing, fashion and film-making, for instance – could provide not only actual on-the-job training and a mapped-out career path, but also many of the other benefits we associate with a university degree.

Many graduate jobs are graduate jobs not because they require the academic rigour of a degree, but because they require the kind social capital it takes three years at an elite institution to accrue. Simply replacing a degree with an apprenticeship might provide the similar networking opportunities and similar – even superior – professional training, but this difference is status will likely still apply. Here the history of spy recruitment can point the way too. The day-to-day reality of MI6 probably involves as much tedium and petty stationary-based conflict as any other job, but Bond films and John le Carré novels have convinced us of its glamour. Might apprenticeships in less glamorous-sounding industries benefit from a similar image overhaul?

A successful apprenticeship scheme has the potential to promote social equality, increase individual job satisfaction and improve professional standards. But if it is to fulfill this potential, even targeting traditional graduate professions won’t be enough. The apprenticeship route must be made attractive, both to teenagers with no other options and to those who in previous generations would follow their parents into a university education regardless of their personal academic aptitude. In other words, school-leaver spies are a good thing, but we are going to need more posh plumbers too.

Twitter: @MsEllenEJones