A drop of the real stuff

21st January 2000 at 00:00
Work experience can yield great benefits if pupils tackle it with suitable skills and confidence. Neil Munro reports on an enterprise which proved highly successful for one participant.

Emma Fowler is a 17-year-old pupil in her sixth year at Kilmarnock Academy. She is undertaking work experience at the Johnnie Walker plant in Kilmarnock and hopes to go to university. So far, so unremarkable.

But there are not many 17-year-olds in Scottish schools who have addressed national conferences, made key business decisions and are about to save their placement employer a cool pound;300,000.

Emma was charged, as her special project, with discovering whether cheaper sprayed bottles could replace Johnnie Walker's coloured glass variety. In a smart piece of problem-solving, her particular contribution was the successful discovery of what type of adhesive would allow labels to stick to the sprayed coating.

She did what any average schoolgirl would do - ran trials on adhesives, visited other plants and suppliers, placed orders for caps, cases, cartons, labels and whisky, arranged full line trials, and took decisions for her elders and betters to implement. All this while working at the Johnnie Walker plant for just two afternoons a week.

"My bottles all proved to be satisfactory," Emma says with just a hint of job satisfaction. She does, however, have one last problem to solve - how to ensure the bottles will take tax strips on which some countries insist as proof the whisky is not counterfeit.

If she overcomes that one, what she now proprietorially refers to as "my bottle" will be launched on the market in April.

Emma says: "I am really enjoying my work term at Johnnie Walker and gaining a lot of experience in the world of business. Every work experience that I have had has been good, but I would have preferred to have always been given a real project that is going to be of real use, where you can see the end result.

"I have been given full responsibility for the project and all the decisions are mine."

Emma's potential was spotted quickly by the organisers of the Shad Valley programme, a Canadian initiative aimed at "promoting excellence in science, technology and entrepreneurship". It is intended for high-flying senior pupils in the equivalent of S5 and S6. Emma was one of 50 from a number of countries - including 23 pioneering Scots taking part for the first time - who attended last summer's intensive four-week residential held at various universities across Canada, in her case Waterloo, Ontario. She is now entitled to call herself "a Shad Waterloo 1999 alumna".

Scotland has put in a successful bid to host the event next July when it will take place at Strathclyde University. An essential ingredient is the involvement of businesses like United Distillers and Vintners, the parent company of Johnnie Walker, that agree to sponsor students and give them work placements during and after their spell on the programme.

Although the programme is aimed at top students, "nerds" are not the target group. Gordon McVie of the National Centre: Education for Work and Enterprise, who was instrumental in getting Scottish pupils involved with the Shad Valley initiative, says they look for high achievers who are also "rounded individuals" and they are not necessarily those who may have all the top grades but very little else. Emma, for example, is a keen horse-rider.

Emma says: "Shad Valley is the type of programme where you can keep going for weeks with hardly any sleep at all because you become soenthusiastic and excited that you do not want to stop what you are doing."

You would certainly have to be fairly committed to a project to work, as Emma did, from 8.30 in the morning until 11.30 at night.

But the whole rationale for such enterprise education is to encounter the unusual, deal with the unexpected and solve the unpredictable - skills which come in useful in any walk of life but are particularly valuable if you fancy running your own business or pursuing the mysteries of adhesive in a whisky bottling plant.

Emma's Shad Valley experience included leadership and teamwork lectures where the students were tied in knots; engineering lectures on oscillators using juggling clubs; biology lectures wearing coffee cups; and maths lectures using pieces of fruit to represent us in "fruit space".

Her team's specialist project was to design and build a children's exhibit for the Waterloo regional children's museum, which was judged to be third best of all the Shad entries.

From Emma's point of view, her experiences so far have given her the reassurance that "I am all right at things and don't need to keep putting myself down". She says her time at Johnnie Walker gave her an insight into the different jobs undertaken by people in the company. But she also had "the chance to see my potential before I go to university".

Carol Ford, head of Kilmarnock Academy, speaks in glowing terms about the Shad Valley approach which she says changed Emma out of all recognition into a confident, outgoing young person.

Betty Orr, the enterprise development officer with East Ayrshire Council, which gives a particularly high priority to enterprise education, says Shad Valley "gives young people the confidence to see a problem as something that can be solved, to really take the bull by the horns". She adds: "Like all successful enterprise programmes, you find students who have had the Shad Valley experience saying that 'enterprise is about me and what I can do', not just about business."

Ronnie Gordon, product development manager at the Johnnie Walker plant, pays particular tribute to Emma's communicative skills. "To persuade diehard employees who've been with the company for 20 or 30 years that they should do what you want without demur is quite something," he says.

Mr McVie comments: "If you had met these students before they went on the Shad Valley experience, you would have found the archetypal Scots youngsters who are rather diffident and lacking in confidence among strangers. Their transformation has been remarkable."

John Mulgrew, East Ayrshire's director of education, is a committed supporter of enterprise education and refutes any suggestion that it is a means of getting a business agenda into schools.

"We should do whatever we can to promote young people's personal skills, including their business abilities," Mr Mulgrew says. "Emma is a classic case of a young person of proven ability being given wider opportunities to develop and use her skills."

Without the intervention of enterprise education in its various forms, Emma's potential may well have gone unnoticed. She acknowledges her own drive and commitment, but she did have some minor incentives to do well at Johnnie Walker - a weekly wage of pound;120, a real project, and an offer from the company to pay her way through university.

There may still be places left on this summer's Shad Valley programme, details of which can be obtained from Pat Thomson at Forth Valley Education Business Partnership on 01324 718414

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