LEWISHAM COLLEGE has taken the lead in guiding college-leavers down the path to setting up in their own business by appointing the country's first in-house self-employment adviser.
Shanice Lindsay took up the post six months ago after the Prince's Youth Business Trust approached the college with the idea of giving their outreach work a more permanent presence in the south London college.
Since then Shanice has fielded nearly 200 enquiries from students thinking of setting up on their own. A big part of her job is to make them realise that self-employment is a viable option.
"Self-employment isn't always something people think about," she says. "But a lot of young people don't get a job and remain unemployed, yet they have the skills to set themselves up in business. What we are doing is giving them the opportunity to think about it and explore it and then, with the support they need, to set themselves up in business."
Since it was established in 1986, the trust has kick-started around 35, 000 businesses, helping would-be entrepreneurs write business plans, offering successful candidates loans and creating 60,000 jobs. A network of experienced businesspeople act as mentors, guiding the young entrepreneurs through the notoriously difficult first 12 months. The trust targets 18 to 30-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds who have been unable to secure funding from other sources, which makes their success rate - more than 60 per cent of trust-supported businesses were still trading in their third year according to a recent survey - even more remarkable.
By becoming an integral part of Lewisham College, the trust is hoping its message - that being your own boss need not be beyond you - will reach more young people. If the Lewisham scheme - co-funded by the trust and the South London Training and Enterprise Council - proves successful, the trust intends to forgesimilar partnerships with other colleges.
So far the signs are good. Three businesses - in fashion retailing, record production and bookselling - are already operating, and several more applications for trust-funding are pending.
Shanice believes colleges could do a lot more to prepare their students for the increasingly likely scenario of self-employment. "Statistics are forecasting a substantial increase in the number of people who enter self-employment. There is going to be a real need to provide business start-up training courses, so that these people can get some training at the outset. "
The lack of such courses means some people go into business with only a vague notion of what they are letting themselves in for. "I have had people ringing me up who are already in business and find that they don't have the necessary skills or knowledge to identify their customers or to keep account of their books."
Some students have come to her with a good idea but without the skills to put it into writing - an essential first step in securing finance. This is one area, she suggests, where colleges could help. "In inner-city colleges where you have people with literacy problems or English as a second language, the biggest obstacle is the writing of the business plan. That can be a real barrier for them. Colleges need to look at ways of providing additional support for these people."
Shanice is compiling a report on how the college could make itself more responsive to the needs of young businesspeople. On a practical level, she thinks colleges can lend a hand by letting them make use of their facilities, at the same time generating some income for the colleges themselves.
"Around 80 per cent of new businesses need a signboard. We have got an excellent sign-making department here which could offer its services to new businesses in the private sector."
Similarly, college printing services and catering departments could be made more accessible to students needing business cards and letterheads or a good spread to launch their product or impress potential clients.
"Self-employment needs to be an integral part of all business training. If you are doing a construction course, for example, one of the units should be on self-employment.
"A lot of young people have never been given the opportunity to think about it. I think - what skills might I have to set up on my own if it looks as if I can't get a job working for someone else? A lot of people are sitting on skills they don't know they have. It is not until you show them what skills they have that they start to realise that."
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