PhD In Life Anyone?

There’s little doubt that a number of you will have been to University, or that some of you will have gone the distance and are now entitled to stick a few choice letters after your name. I’m sure there’ll even be a few of you who at one time or another have actually used your degree, with or without honour(s), to get a job. Perhaps you used your BSc in Existential Yoghourt Farming, to get a Civil Service position in the Ministry of Defence; or a Philosophy degree to jump on the graduate fast track as a trainee manager in Woolworths. Whatever you may have done in the past, the likelihood is that if you got this mag free, nobody demanded to see proof of your academic achievements before you started in your current position.

However if you did the whole mortarboard and gown thing, it does pose one obvious question: how relevant was your degree to your present employment? Or more to the point, does any of the stuff you studied and regurgitated between the ages of 18 & 21, help make you a better despatch rider? OK that’s a bit loaded, but I’m honestly not out to have a pop at the further educated; I’m simply attempting to establish a position. I’ll admit that in the past I may have carried a sizeable chip on my shoulder, but there’s nowt like a bit of fast riding to blow stuff away.

When I started despatching, it was the first time I’d ever met and mixed with graduates on an equal footing and in a situation where academic achievements simply weren’t on the agenda. Suddenly any prejudices or assumptions I may have been carrying, became irrelevant. There were three criteria by which I measured my peers: their knowledge of London; how they performed on a bike; and whether they were up for a laugh when they dismounted. Anyone who scored well on the last two points was always welcome in Peckham. Age, sex, sexuality, education, race, class, religious tendencies and all the other shit which so often gets in the way, didn’t enter into it.

Nowadays friends who went to university and had a ball, always tell me what I missed and how much I would have loved it. OK there was some work involved but mainly it would seem, it was about sharing a crusty flat (where there were always impromptu gatherings and occasional legendary parties) doing drugs, disappearing up your arse about The Meaning of Life and trying to get laid. Now I’m the first to admit all of that sounds very attractive but it’s also a pretty fair description of my initial three years in the despatch business. As far as I can see the only difference was that when it was time to go to work, the students got down to their books, while me and my flatmates went and played on motorbikes. Nuff said as far as I’m concerned. But the killer , and this is where for me the whole University sales pitch really falls flat, is that while all the students I know were piling up astronomical debts, I was collecting a brown envelope every Friday, which was fat enough to pay for all my essentials and leave plenty for recreational purposes.

Personally university was never even a serious consideration. By the time I was sixteen, the school system had already had over ten years to convince me it had something to offer and it had failed miserably. Consequently it never occurred to me to use my leisure time to do loads of homework and revision so I could pass a slew of O levels, simply to return to do the same at A level before going on to Oxford or Cambridge. That would have required a minimum of another five years and a whole busload of effort, and I had a life to be getting on with. Besides the prospectus I got from The University of Life (Life Poly in those days) looked infinitely more attractive and the starting pay was much better!

I arrived at that conclusion over thirty years ago, when I was barely out of puberty. So has the rest of my life been blighted by that short-sighted decision? Has the premature termination of my formal education, left me disadvantaged in the world of employment? Considering that I’ve worked ever since I left school, the honest answer has got to be no actually. Alright I could have earned more, but I’ve always had enough to enjoy my life, and the same goes for my four children. So as I never wanted to be a doctor, lawyer or merchant banker (a particularly appropriate bit of rhyming slang I’ve always thought) I can’t imagine what I’d have done different. By the time I started in the courier business, I’d been working for seven years. I mightn’t have had any academic qualifications worthy of mention, nor any particular specialist field, but I’d had plenty of opportunity to establish that I could get up in the morning and that I was a good all-rounder who wasn’t exactly slow on the uptake. I took to despatching like a duck to Hoy Sin sauce and pancakes and soon discovered that besides having a brilliant job, I was also in the most educational phase of my life.

On any given day I could expect to find myself in the London offices of many of the nation’s, if not the world’s, most powerful institutions. Lloyds, Goldman Sachs, Disney Corp, the CBI, Rothchilds, Saatchi & Saatchi, Herbert Smith, Shell… (You could write your own list. They’re all pillars of the establishment, who along with the Government departments and quangos, still provide the bread and butter of the business) I was never one for pacing, so whenever I was clocking waiting time, I’d look around for something to read. What I picked up tended to depend on the business the punter was in but all too often it seems, I had plenty of time to read interesting in depth stuff. Whether it was in Campaign, The Lloyds List, Marketing, The Financial Times or any of the other specialist publications, it was usually information that I wouldn’t have otherwise come across, and it invariably gave me a useful insight into the world I lived and worked in. Being a DR is a bit like having a backstage pass on life. Aside from the massive commercial interests I could just as easily find myself on a film set; the studio of a famous artist; a storage room in the V & A; or behind the scenes at a hospital. And every one of those situations presented me with an opportunity to learn something new.

Why does the academic establishment insist on perpetuating the myth that it has a monopoly on the provision of knowledge? And if its central aim is to impart wisdom to its students, why doesn’t it simply confine itself to that? Why does it insist on using examinations and tests to grade pupils, when an assessment of their course work would be much fairer and provide infinitely more useful information? The answer to all these questions is pretty straightforward really and the clue is in that magic word Monopoly. Academia is in an incredibly powerful position, whereby it can endorse, or otherwise, your suitability for well-paid employment. Consequently as ‘an education’ can be your ticket off the breadline, they can afford to demand that you jump through a few hoops. That’s where examinations come in. They’re pretty arbitrary really and completely ignore the different ways people react to tests; but that doesn’t matter because it’s never been about discovering who’s brightest or cleverest, exams are simply an expedient way of short listing all the people who’d prefer not to do a crap job.

The biggest con about the whole education system is that when Joe or Jo Workingclass leaves University and starts looking for that pot of gold at the end of their self-financed educational rainbow, they discover that the First Class honours degree that they sweated blood and bought their own books to achieve, comes a poor second to connections. That Prince Edward and a thousand dullards just like him, have already been lined up for all the best gigs. But as long as Mr or Ms J. Workingclass BA understands and accepts how it all works, they’ll be given a shot at avoiding the minimum wage. Because if a degree shows anything, it’s indicates that the person who achieved it has displayed a firm commitment to the status quo (and no that doesn’t, necessarily, mean they spend all their time at Uni playing racquet guitar in front of the bedroom mirror).

Nepotism may be the number one scam facing those who choose to go the University route but for the rest of us, the neatest thing about the Great Academic Swindle, lays on the other side of the educational coin. The flip-side which suggests that if you didn’t finish school, or did badly at your GCSEs, you were an academic failure and consequently not very bright. No surprise then that a lot of folk take this idea to heart and accept that it’s only right that they should do a shit job for shit money, while the clever ones get all the good stuff.

The other day I was helping out on an advertising shoot featuring Wayne, a 26 year old courier. He was being paid model’s rates (i.e. a week’s DR wages for the afternoon) and in my opinion he was providing damn good value for money. He was a star. Modelling wise, he delivered everything that was asked of him; but what was interesting about that was that he did so with such consummate ease that it underlined the simplicity of the role, especially when compared with his mainstream work. He’s an experienced DR, and it was obvious that his mind worked at a completely different pitch to the highly paid folk around him. Throughout the afternoon he came up with straightforward solutions to the little quandaries he heard the artistic types agonising over; he whipped out his roll of duct tape and sorted out their props and even made a couple of good artistic suggestions (which they took on board without ever recognising their source).

Of course Wayne and I spent a fair bit of time doing that thing that DR’s get to be very good at: sitting around smoking while extremely well paid media types have high-power confabs (except for once we weren’t doing it at six quid an hour!). In one of our stand-by sessions, I was talking about The Rider’s Digest and Wayne admitted that he doesn’t read it. Apparently his reading isn’t up to much (a situation which is a lot more common than many of you who read this with ease may realise) as he didn’t do a lot of school. However Wayne believes that when all’s said and done, he (and his family) aren’t doing so badly; considering he’s riding a company Bandit, and he’s on a PAYE salary of 20K a year.

And he’s spot on. Within the prevailing structure of our society, there are very few areas in ‘The Marketplace’ where someone who didn’t cut it academically can get anything like a reasonable return on their skills, wit and native intelligence. The fact that a DR who’s got a lot more savvy than schooling, can still earn slightly above the minimum wage, simply serves to illustrate what a demanding and potentially dangerous job it is.

Although many in the business justifiably claim that earning a respectable living is becoming increasingly difficult, despatching continues to provide a home for some very intelligent ‘failures’. In essence being a courier is a very straightforward job; you pick up packages and deliver them. Anyone who can make sense of an A to Z and ride a bike between two points can do it. But they’re just the basics. The really good pro’s are invariably extremely bright individuals, who develop and practise such an impressive array of ‘transferable skills’, that if they wrote them down – tarting them up with the right ‘power words’ – they’d have incredible CV’s.

Next time you’re waiting around for a “desperately urgent” package, rather than pace up and down while the Aussie temp on reception tries to find Nigel in the wine bar, sit back in some leather and take a gander at the job section in any of the broad sheets you’re sure to find laying about. Skip past the bit that says “Good Honours Degree essential” and check out the person spec for a few of the better paid jobs.

  • Must be able to make crucial decisions instantly in high pressure situations.
  • Must possess ability to communicate with a wide variety of agencies, at all levels.
  • Capacity to manage own workload without direct supervision.
  • Willingness to work long hours when circumstances demand it.

Ring any bells?

The decisions you make while you skim through heavy traffic at high relative speeds, tend to be a tad more crucial than the average executive finger wringer. After all what’s the worst an exec can do if the heat gets too much and he or she really screws up big time? Lose a shitload of money, or at worst get the tin-tack. It’s not even like they get done for corporate manslaughter (check out the case of Simon Jones who died with a crushed head, less than two badly paid hours into a new job at Euromin in Shoreham docks). In reality at least half of the monumental decisions the folks on the big bucks have to make hinge on such critical issues as espresso or cappuccino, or whether to go with the Chablis or the Chardonnay.

If you are a serious pro working for one of the big firms, you have to interact with every conceivable strata of society, right across the entire social and business spectrum (and don’t forget that you often have to deal with clients in their homes as well as their workplaces).

The last two points are so bleeding obvious that I won’t even bother to comment, beyond saying that in the latter case, it’s a question of necessity because financial circumstances (and bonus schemes) demand that you always work long hours if you’re going to have any chance of making a decent wage.

Of course in the real world of employment you can’t simply scrub ’round the academic requirements because it doesn’t matter how well you could do it – if you ain’t got the paper, you ain’t got the job! Consequently I’m not suggesting that you cash in your transferable skills for a move into a higher tax bracket, simply that you should recognise them for what they are. Particularly if, along with me, you were written off as part of The Great Academic Swindle. Because it’s all too easy to allow educational snobbery to cause you to underestimate your own intellect, capabilities and worth.

Think about it: the CEO’s of all the Multinationals, all the academics and intellectuals, and most of the world’s politicians, have all been thoroughly University educated. They’ve had the opportunity to study the accumulated knowledge, wisdom and science – not to mention mistakes – of civilisations from around the world and across the millennia. My question is, if they’re all so fuck off clever, why’s the world is in such a bleedin’ mess? (answers c/o The Digest)

Be Careful Out There

Carin’ Sharin’

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