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Careering towards Sin City

Back in the Seventies I was a pupil at a village comprehensive in Pembrokeshire - "little England beyond Wales", as it's known. "City of Sin" is what one of my teachers used to call London. "You don't want to go there, girl," he'd frequently say.

But I did go, and many of my class ended up in London too. After all, why stay in rural Wales? There were no jobsand, in my teenage opinion, not much else either. (To my surprise, I did find I missed waking to the sound of the sea.)

Earlier this month, 24 sixth-formers from eight Welsh secondary schools got a chance I wish I'd had - to spend a week on work experience in the "City of Sin". The scheme is organised by a Welsh expatriate organisation, Cymru yn Llundain (Wales in London), and sponsors include the Development Board for Rural Wales and Powys County Council. The aim: to give schoolchildren from rural Wales "an understanding of career opportunities not available in the Principality".

These ranged from a week at the London Palladium, shadowing the stage manager of the musical Oliver, to working in the recruitment section of Price Waterhouse, sitting in on interviews for high-level public and private sector jobs. (Back home their opportunities for work experience would have been limited to corner shops, garages, small companies and local papers.) So what were the preconceptions of these Welsh teenagers, some in the capital for the first time, and how did London measure up?

At their small hotel near Victoria, most agreed that London was dirty, busy, full of "down-and-outs" and great entertainment but bereft - a bit bewildering this - of postboxes and rubbish bins. "I had to carry my rubbish around for ages," said Joseph Hill of Ysgol Penweddig, Aberystwyth who spent the week at Midland Bank (where they found him so responsible that, unusually for a placement, they let him work with the cashiers and carry money to and from the safe). "No bins - it's because of the IRA," another explained helpfully.

The teenagers were impressed by "posh" five-star lunches, "humungus" buildings (stockbroking firm, Salomon Brothers), water fountain reception areas (Coopers Lybrand) and company limousines (Glaxo Wellcome). They were even more impressed by their evening outing to the premiere of the film Mission Impossible where - the girls screaming while sitting precariously on the boys' shoulders - they saw Tom Cruise in person.

The Wales in London press release had stressed the contrast between safe idyllic countryside ("with hilltop to hilltop views of sunshine and sky") and the rather terrifying big city. But this was a bit OTT forsome of the more worldly youngsters, as was my question about whether they were phased by the computer technology they encountered. "We're not primi-tives, you know, " said Joseph Hill.

Public transport was a bigger obstacle. Ann Bebb of Welshpool High School was so anxious about her journey to Price Waterhouse that her geography teacher went with her on the first day.

Geraint Hughes of Coleg Meirion Dwyfor in Dolgellau seized on the Tube as London's lowest point. "I didn't like the selfish attitude - people on the Underground not letting others on. But I was the same by the end."

One difficulty was the Welsh-speaking youngsters' tendency to break into their native tongue at inopportune moments. Welsh is enjoying a revival and some of the teenagers, like Angharad Stephens, a pupil at Penweddig school, are being taught all their A-level subjects through the medium of Welsh.

"I found myself going into a room, starting a sentence in Welsh and then stopping. But I thought in Welsh all the time," said Angharad, who worked at the cable communications company Bell Cable Media. "I kept saying things like 'Duw, Duw' ('Good God')," added Huw Thomas of Ysgol Dyffryn Teifi, Llandysul (whose placement at Evolutions TV put him in the editing suite watching The Good Sex Guide being put together and whose suggestion that the company should try marketing itself via the Internet was enthusiastically received).

But for aspiring journalist Ben Pickford of Crickhowell school, Brecon, the emphasis placed on Welsh by London's BBC Wales desk scuppered the radio feature he was planning on General Election campaigns.

"I couldn't find a big advertising agency with a Welsh speaker to interview, so they pulled the plug." Is Ben now convinced of the need to learn Welsh to get a job in Wales? "Nah, I'll just get a job in England."

But the week did change his career plans. Instead of applying for a university place to read journalism, he'll go for a degree in sound engineering - "journalists are under too much pressure all the time."

Pressure was something Gareth Thomas, on a theatre course at Coleg Meirion Dwyfor, positively revelled in. At the London Palladium, the highlight of his week was the evening he spent on the lighting deskI"pressing a button and just controlling a West End show", he gloated.

Richard Gough, placement co-ordinator, admits that he makes full use of his Welsh connections to place students in firms like Goldman Sachs, ITN and the BBC World Service (the students' academic calibre helps - many are sitting four A-levels).

"The Taffy Mafia at work?" I suggest, after he's reeled off a list of Welsh notables, from former Liberal MP Lord Hooson to former Welsh Secretary Nicholas Edwards who have helped with the scheme.

"Yes, well, networking is what it's all about these days," he retorts. "The Eton network, the college networkIthis network is not about helping ourselves but helping the Principality."

But is that true? Polly Hawcroft, from Welshpool High School, was in no doubt about where her future lies: "I don't want to go back home to sheep and fields and stuff - this is the life for me."

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