· 2 min read · Features

Careers take an alternative path


New graduates are now likely to look for safe public-sector careers or even set up on their own.

If I were to choose an anthem for the recession it would have to be the Freddy Mercury song, Another One Bites The Dust. It seems we can't open a newspaper these days without reading of yet another ailing company.

However, I can't feel too sympathetic about some of the high-street chains that have foundered. Will anyone really miss Woolworths? I never thought much of it when it was a power in the high street 40 years ago. Neither will I miss Principles, if the administrators cannot find a buyer. I don't think I ever went through its doors.

But I would be sorry to see Saab, the carmaker, disappear. I owned one once and I remember it was good in the snow. But there has to be a cycle of renewal in business and part of that must involve saying goodbye to fading brands.

The real sadness of the recession is that great people businesses such as the Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS - now part of Lloyds Bank - have also been brought to their knees, even though these two institutions may continue as de facto state-owned companies with private company facades. By people businesses, I'm talking about companies that had built thorough, state-of-the-art HR systems.

What these have shown, as I pointed out in an earlier column, is that great HR systems cannot save a business if its leadership makes fundamentally flawed decisions or if the strategy is wrong. It is too early at this stage to count the cost of the financial crisis, although we know it is being measured in hundreds of billions, possibly trillions in the long run. But there are other costs more difficult to evaluate. Imagine the lack of trust among prospective job candidates. Put yourself in the shoes of a 20 year-old university student approaching graduation. How would you feel about a career in finance now?

The attitudes of young people towards careers were already changing before this recession. Today I think they will be changing again. Some employers in the public sector and most professions will win as the more traditionally minded graduates opt for safe havens that offer a measure of professional recognition.

The media will win and so will new technology such as internet services. Some retailers, such as the big supermarket chains, will have no difficulty finding talent. Neither, frankly, will financial companies. But the banks should not expect loyalty or high levels of engagement.

Some companies, of course, will miss out on today's students by choice, having frozen or drastically reduced their graduate intake, thus depriving themselves of a significant age cohort in the years ahead when the supply of young people will grow tighter as a result of demographic trends.

But businesses rarely look ahead when they are fighting for survival, even though they should. This is where tough-minded and strategically-focused HR professionals need to be fighting their battles with those finance directors who are bent on paring the business to the bone.

Even if they win they might find themselves struggling to find real talent as business improves. The reason is that some of the best students today are dreaming of running their own businesses and why not? Barriers to entry are falling as open-sourced software allows the construction of an internet site on a shoestring. This is where to look for tomorrow's green shoots.

One of my sons has just built a games internet site while still at university and it's earning him more than enough to cover his tuition fees. He chose not to apply for a corporate internship since all his energies are being channelled into what is effectively a business start-up, even if he doesn't quite see it like that just now. It may remain a hobby job but what is already clear is that it is a workable alternative to a traditional career path. He is not alone. There are thousands more entrepreneurs just like him out there. Small is beautiful now.

Richard Donkin is author of 'Blood, Sweat and Tears' and 'The Evolution of Work', richard.donkin@haymarket.com