A Business Volunteer

Yesterday I spent the morning being a ‘Business Volunteer’, participating in a programme to train students at a local school in interview skills.  It’s not the first time I’ve been involved in things like this, but it’s been a while since the last time, and as with such experiences, there are always a few little surprises along the way.

The London Borough of Barnet is a big place, and I live in one of its corners, right up against the borders with two other Boroughs, so it’s possible to drive for quite a long time and still be in Barnet, to places I’d never have cause to go but for days like these.

And schools don’t look like they used to.  Admittedly I had the misfortune to attend a school that had been thrown up in the late 1960s and which had started to rot before the last coat of paint on it had dried, and which has already been torn down, but I still didn’t expect the bright shiny building with uniformed security guard and automated gates; nor indeed the carpet on the floor.

But were they always as noisy as this?

Maybe I do spend too much of my time on my own, because the constant noise of children shouting and the sound of so much humanity simply moving about in the wide open plan space in which I was conducting my interviews was impossible for me to screen out. Do schools still have bells?  I didn’t hear any, yet everyone seemed to know when to move and to change location.

After basic briefing, I was allocated to a group of 4 students, all about 15 years old. The scenario was that they were applying for a Saturday job at John Lewis, a large retailer, although none of them had paid much attention to that as an area for preparatory research.

Trying to draw words out of nervous teenagers reminded me uncannily of many of the interviews I conducted when I was working in Moscow.  There, I just wanted the candidates to say something, anything, other than ‘I want to work at Coopers and Lybrand because it is a very famous firm, and I think it would be very interesting.’  Asking them exactly what they thought would be interesting about it was inevitably a fruitless question.

‘I’d like to work at John Lewis cos there’s one at Brent Cross and it’s easy to get to’, had the same sort of ring to it.

Having said that, my little group were charming to a fault, although as I sent each of them to the bin in the middle of the hall, so they would walk back to greet me and shake my hand at the beginning of their turn to be interviewed, I reflected on how hard you have to concentrate on a shy nervous person to make them give you eye contact and a firm hand shake.

Here’s a couple of my favourite exchanges of the day:

‘Do you have any work experience?’

‘Not yet, but I have got a placement to shadow a barrister for a week in November.’

‘You’re interested in the law then?’

‘Yes.  I’m doing GCSE Law next year, and I quite like it.’

‘And you think you’d like to be a barrister?’

‘Yes there’s two types of lawyers: barristers do advocacy and solicitors do the backroom paperwork.’

‘Do you think advocacy would suit you better?’

‘Yes, but it’s only a back up plan in case I can’t get into IT.’


‘What else do you like to do in your spare time apart from computer games?’

‘I quite like reading.’

‘What are you reading at the moment?’

‘I’m not actually reading anything at the moment.’

‘OK, what did you read last?’

‘I found an extract of this book on the internet called Fifty Shades of Grey *, so I read that and quite enjoyed it.  But then when I got to the end of the extract I read some information about it online, and thought I wouldn’t read any more.’

‘Any books that you’ve actually finished?’

‘We did read Of Mice and Men in class and I had to use my creativity to work out what it meant.’

*I’m not sure the so-called ‘Mummy porn’ is really targeted at 15 year old boys (not that I’ve read it), or is it?

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  1. My favourite: “any books that you’ve actually finished?” !!!

    • I tried to keep a straight face, not completely successfully. It was a good ‘learning point’ for them, though. He had enough sense to be embarrassed….

  2. margaret

     /  July 11, 2012

    Teenagers rarely look anyone in the eye , even when they have been quite well raised , unless they want to be menacing !! You are right :what some DO need is quite simply social skills and so many schools do not seem to fill the gap which may be left by families .Otherwise I am not at all surprised by the exchanges !

    • I feel quite pleased that I go them to look me in the eye then. Joking aside though, I’m quite shocked by the very poor careers advice the school must be giving them.

  3. I agree with you, from what you say in your post. I am quite surprised by what you wrote. Alex went to Westerford, which is a state school but is ranked very highly and, frankly, she and all her friends that I know sound very different to the chaps you came across the other day. Although the book thing was funny, it is also very sad, so is the eye thing. The teens I know (and before anyone thinks I am being racist and only talking about well-off white kids in South Africa, I promise you I’m not – Westerford is fully multi-racial and Alex has many friends who aren’t white and who also don’t live in fancy suburbs) know enough to look someone straight in the eye and offer a hand when they are introduced, if they don’t actually introduce themselves!, be polite, stand up (fairly) straight, and speak in full sentences. During five years of high school, they do community work in the holidays, internships, job shadowing, mock interviews, career counselling, writing up their own cvs, etc, and those things don’t cost extra. I wish every single child in the world had those opportunities. And if it’s a question of resources, well, you don’t have to be rich to give your children a background of reading and books. Libraries are free.
    Or am I being completely detached and short-sighted?

    • You’re right Gill. I don’t want to sound as if they were not well behaved and sparky kids that I met. But I was aware of how hard I was concentrating and focussing on each of them in turn, so that they could see that I was treating the role playing seriously, so they would do the same. When each of them was ‘on’ they did well, but when they were observing, there was a lot of slouching and attention wandering. And to be fair, they held the door open for me when we had to go from one building to another….. I did get the impression though that they were genuinely surprised that I was interested in listening to what they had to say; and they all had experience of volunteering and charity working. I just felt that there were so many things that led them to be underselling themselves, that had nothing to do with their intelligence and charm, and everything to do with how poorly they were being led. I did a tiny bit, I think…….

      • Ok, I get a better picture now. I think this is the crux – “they were genuinely surprised that I was interested in listening to what they had to say”. It sounds like you did an amazing job, it’s a wonderful initiative.

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