Finance academy fortunes

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
Sue Jones reports on city internships that boost business students' prospects

Canary Wharf is visible from Walthamstow and Lewisham, but a world away from the career aims of most young people in these London boroughs - until now.

A short commute takes 40 Finance Academy students on six-week paid internships with some of the top finance companies. And, despite its posh-sounding name, the academy is not a fast track for the already privileged. Nor is it a separate institution. It operates within mainstream colleges.

Contacts with the world of work are often just an added extra for business students, but the Finance Academy puts them at the heart of their studies.

Ruth Silver, principal of Lewisham College, first came across the idea of a business-led curriculum in New York and was fired with enthusiasm. "It's industry-led rather than us being beggars," she said. "It gives kids a real taste of paid working life, not just a rehearsal."

The first Finance Academy followed the law of unintended consequences.

Facing a shortage of young recruits for Citigroup financial services company in New York in 1982, SandfordI. Weill offered 35 Brooklyn students the chance to increase their understanding of finance through close contacts with the company.

But at the end of their course, he still failed to recruit most of them - their aspirations had been raised so much that they wanted to go to college.

"What was deemed to be an employability programme became a widening-participation programme," says John May, chief executive of the UK Career Academy Foundation.

Following the American pattern, the UK foundation was set up in 2001 - with a pilot Finance Academy shared by Lewisham, Sir George Monoux and Guildford colleges - for young people who are not yet achieving their potential.

"We're focusing on urban areas of the UK where young people's aspirations are not as high as they might be," said Mr May.

George Monoux is a sixth-form college in Walthamstow with students from a wide range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. John McMinn, vice-principal, said academy students get the chance to work in large corporate organisations they would not usually be exposed to.

Academy students form a separate group within their college, working with a small team of teachers. "The second years suddenly realise that this little entity has kept them going and committed," said Lewisham College's programme manager, Ruth Griffiths.

"We get students who probably wouldn't have made it, but they had something to get them up in the morning. It has raised their grades and their ambitions."

Two-thirds of the modular course is devoted to conventional Level 3 (A-level or equivalent) business studies. The rest, in finance and banking, is designed by representatives from the financial and skills sectors.

The focus is on practical skills, such as group work and presentations, in partnership with companies such as Citigroup, Canary Wharf plc, Credit Suisse First Boston and McGraw-Hill in London's financial hub. Students get about pound;6.50 an hour and experience at first hand the theory they have studied on the course.

Internships at Canary Wharf plc have given Ermira Muca of Sir George Monoux College and Jude John of Lewisham College an insight into the future. They work on complete projects that develop their skills and are of real use to the company. They work as part of a team, with a mentor and regular evaluation meetings.

The internship has confirmed Ermira's interest in personnel, where she has been helping to design training procedures. "It's very good experience if you want to get into business to do this before higher education," she said.

Jude John had the opportunity of better-paid holiday work, but sees the internship at Canary Wharf as a chance to hit the ground running when he starts work after graduating.

Ogun Karakoc, who has done an internship with Credit Suisse First Boston, said: "This internship has really helped me to develop as a person. I have really enjoyed my time at CSFB. I would love to come back and work for the firm again."

Citigroup's UK business administration manager, Rachel Chalk, said: "The academy goes a long way to dispelling the myth that certain types of work are only for certain people. Many are overwhelmed when they first come in, but find that people are friendly, welcoming and from a diverse set of backgrounds, challenging their view of a stereotypical banker."

Staff also benefit. "It has a tremendous impact on teams and supervisors," said Ms Chalk. "They learn about coaching, leadership and organising and planning projects - it's almost like a mini training course."

Paul Jenkinson, vice-president of international human relations at McGraw-Hill, said: "Managers want to give the person a wider view of how the company works, give them a skill they didn't have when they came in, develop their confidence."

Education-business links are also about confronting a serious issue. "It's good that more young people are going to university, but they are choosing subjects that will leave them unemployed and demotivated.

"Teachers have very little contact with business. If there were more business links from age 16 and young people had a more informed view of the business world, it would influence their choice of degree subject."

According to John McMinn, students choose the academy for added value. More than 80 have completed the course, of whom 85 per cent have been offered higher education places. The foundation now plans to move beyond London and expand the programme to 250 young people.

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