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

Share

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Home Care / Support Workers

£7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Separate lives: Boston’s streets illustrate the divide between the town’s communities  

Migrants have far more to offer than hard work and wealth creation, yet too many exist in isolation from the rest of society

Emily Dugan
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has sold 40 million copies  

Go Set a Watchman: Harper Lee’s new novel is more than just a literary event

Joseph Charlton
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate