Vision of youth - How we will encourage tomorrow's entrepreneurs

There's a big push going on in the North to transform our youth into the entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

There's a big push going on in the North to transform our youth into the entrepreneurs of tomorrow. Nigel Stirling reports.

Reality TV shows Dragons' Den and The Apprentice have driven public interest in business among the general public to an all-time high.

The cut and thrust of big business, powerful people in designer suits, bizarre money-spinning ideas and the promise of big money are all handy when it comes to engaging teenagers in the idea of starting their own company.

Events such as Biz Idol, a Pop Idol-style event to find the next top flight entrepreneur among the region's youngsters, have mushroomed.

Young Enterprise, best known for teaching secondary school children the lessons of business by getting them to set up their own company, is experiencing boom times.

In the North-East alone the number of youngsters participating in Young Enterprise programmes has jumped from 10,000 two years ago to 24,000 last year, with further growth of 25% expected in 2006.

Last September the Government introduced a requirement for all secondary schools in the UK to devote five days of an academic year to the `enterprise education' of pupils above Year 10.

However, this rush to encourage the nation's youth into the arts of entrepreneurialism poses important questions. Can entrepreneurship be taught or is it more to do with innate ability?

And should resources be diverted to tackling shortages of more rudimentary skills, such as those learnt on industry apprenticeships?

One thing is clear. The UK has a poor record of starting up new businesses compared to more economically successful countries such as the US, Canada and even New Zealand, where the rate of business start-up is twice that of the UK.

A dose of entrepreneurialism is sorely needed in the North-East. According to regional development agency One NorthEast the region needs 20,000 more businesses to attain 90% of the economic performance of the rest of the United Kingdom.

Catherine Marchant, chief executive of Young Enterprise North-East, says organisations teaching entrepreneurship must be quick to add a dose of realism to the perceptions created by reality TV series such as The Apprentice.

She says "They have certainly raised the profile but I think they have also had the effect of discouraging some youngsters from thinking about business as a career. In the North-East you are talking about some areas where there is second and third generation unemployment.

"We need youngsters to be aware that to be an entrepreneur you don't have to be a Richard Branson or an Alan Sugar. An entrepreneur is the person down the road who runs the hair salon or the fish and chip shop. We need to be careful that we do not raise the bar too high."

Ms Marchant says the skills passed on in Young Enterprise are not wasted even if the recipient will never set up their own business.

"It is about teaching skills that can make youngsters more ready for work and understand the role business plays when they enter the workforce.

"Even if you are working in a department of BT if you can understand profit and loss and understand the motivation behind the decision-making processes that businesses make every day you are going to be a more valuable member of that workforce."

More than 1,200 volunteers from businesses in the North-East act as mentors on Young Enterprise courses but Ms Marchant says integrating entrepreneurship into the school curriculum and aligning teachers' academic approach to that of enterprise education is not always easy.

Confederation of British Industry regional director Sarah Green does not accept criticism that making enterprise education a compulsory part of the school curriculum takes away resources from the teaching of more elementary subjects, which employers complain are often lacking amongst new entrants to the workforce.

She said: "I think they can be complementary. I can see no reason why traditional lessons, which are important in building literacy and numerical skills, cannot be taught within the context of teaching lessons in entrepreneurship."

Karl Watkin, the man behind Teesside-based biodiesel producer D1 Oils and County Durham-based skincare products maker Dermasalve Sciences, is unsure about whether entrepreneurship can be taught, but he is forthright about influences would-be entrepreneurs should be protected from.

"What entrepreneurs do is make things happen. What often happens, which is the biggest problem in society today, is people trying to stop others from doing things."

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