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The good growth blog: training the next generation – we can’t put that on the back burner

The good growth blog is written by BGF’s Executive Chair, Stephen Welton.

There is a lot of uncertainty in the world, anxiety on a lot of fronts, and economic clouds on the horizon. Better to hunker down and wait for sunnier times ahead? In my view, that is the opposite of how we should be thinking right now. We cannot simply push the pause button when we hit turbulence. On to the immediate, and I would say exciting future.

Applicants for BGF’s paid summer internship programme have attended interviews in the past few weeks. Happily, these have been in-person, as opposed to the previous two years, when we were obliged to conduct the interviews virtually. We are fortunate to have had a very large number of people applying for the scheme – over 1,700 in total. They are competing for 16 internships based at eight of our regional offices across the UK and Ireland. These numbers show just how competitive it is for young people entering the world of work today.

We worked with 57 universities across the UK and Ireland to set up the scheme, and 88 student societies and networks, such as the University of Bristol Women in STEM Society, for example. We also set aside one of the internships to be filled by a candidate from the 10,000 Black Interns programme.

The BGF staff who have met the applicants have been unanimously impressed by their calibre. The lucky ones who have made it to the final interview stage are very impressive young people – intelligent, engaged, eager to learn and with a lot to offer. The ones who did not are no less able and I hope their efforts on other fronts bear fruit.

We began the internship programme three years ago because we realised it was time for BGF to step up and do our bit to help train and educate the next generation. One of the key topics at last year’s Scaleup Week, the conference series that we organised in partnership with the ScaleUp Institute, was about skills. Many of the panellists discussed an apparent contradiction in the UK and Ireland. On the one hand, we have an excellent education system that is, in many respects, the envy of the world. How many world leaders were educated in the UK, either at school level or at one of the UK’s world-leading universities? The UK has four of the world’s top 20 universities, with Oxford again the number one for the sixth year in a row. That puts us in second place, ahead of China (2) and Canada (1).

Yes, the US dominates with 12 of the 20 – no wonder, then, that the US is the market leader when it comes to innovation, with an entrepreneurial ecosystem underpinned by vast pools of liquidity, not just in Silicon Valley, but across the country. But we should not undersell ourselves. On a relative basis, with a population of 70 million compared to 350 million in the US and 1.4 billion in China, the UK punches above its weight.

The question is: how long can we do so, if we don’t keep reinvesting in the broadest sense? Education creates knowledge, training turns that potential into real skills. So, it is a constant disappointment, and missed opportunity to hear continuously from employers in the UK and Ireland that young people entering their organisations lack the skills they need to compete in the modern workplace.

I could point to many causes for this. One is simply that progress in the private sector has been so quick that the educational system has struggled to keep up. Fifteen years ago, when our current batch of potential interns began formal education, few would have guessed that, for example, mobile app development would be one of the most desired skills in today’s job market. I doubt if any but the most far-sighted would have said that artificial intelligence, life sciences and data analytics would have risen to their current sought-after status either. How many were planning a career in the metaverse?

There is clearly an opportunity for the government, schools and educators to become more agile, more responsive to changes in the world and in the economy, so that important skills like computing are taught to everyone – alongside the essentials of reading, writing and maths. However, it is not only schools that have an opportunity here, or the sole obligation. Employers must also play their part. If skills are lacking, why are employers not taking a more active role, engaging with educators to offer workplace training, work experience and, yes, internships to help equip young people with the skills they need to succeed in their careers?

Indeed, why stop at internships? At BGF we are making plans for the next step in our effort to train up the next generation: a graduate recruitment programme. This is a new venture for us. In the first ten years of operating, we tended to recruit staff who were already experienced in their fields. This was the quickest way for us to build out our regional infrastructure of 16 offices across the UK. But as our model evolves, we are taking an exciting new tack. That means training up young people straight out of university, giving them the knowledge they need to succeed as part of the UK’s largest investor of growth capital, right across the whole country. If that is not levelling up I don’t know what is.

This is something I passionately believe in. If we want to invest in the future, we have to invest in future talent and that starts with smart, engaged young people. I believe this move will also improve the diversity of our business. By bringing in people with different backgrounds and experiences, we enrich the company. And, crucially, we will be providing the investment talent that’s going to help to drive both BGF’s business and the investment community more generally.

When we think about the future, we have to be prepared to invest in people at the start of their careers. For too long, businesses in the UK, like many other countries, have waited for other people to do the training. We talk about skills and apprenticeships, about education being crucial. They are. We are going to do something practical about that and I can’t wait to see our first cohort of graduates joining this company. Look at the success of a simple and new idea like 10,000 Black Interns in capturing people’s imagination. It is incumbent on all employers to do more, then we will have a true social revolution.

I’m biased, of course, but I think an internship or a graduate programme with BGF will be a great way to start your career. However, the exposure, the breadth and the impact that you will have as graduates is not only going to be good for BGF, it’s part and parcel of how we’re going to back enterprise in this country. We want to do the same thing in Ireland. And I hope our model is adopted across the world, because the future really does belong to the next generation. Part of our job is to give them the opportunity.

BGF Insights 04.25.2022
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Stephen Welton, executive chair, BGF
Stephen Welton Executive Chair

Before taking on the role of Executive Chair, Stephen was the founder CEO of BGF between 2011 and 2020.