Entrepreneurship begins at school, argues ERT’s chief

Brian Ager ERT.JPG

This article is part of our special report SME’s Access to Finance.

Helping young people to become entrepreneurs starts at school, where companies have a role to play in coaching students to get the skills required to succeed and compete in the world economy, argues Brian Ager, secretary-general of the European Roundtable of Industrialists (ERT), in an interview with EURACTIV.

Brian Ager is secretary-general of the European Roundtable of Industrialists. He was previously the director-general of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and the secretary-general of EuropaBio.

He was speaking to EURACTIV's Christophe Leclercq.

To read an article drawing on this interview, please click here.

ERT, Junior Achievement Young Entreprise (JA-YE Europe) and Schoolnet announce this week the 'Global Enterprise Project'. What is this about and why do you support it?

ERT member companies are Europe-based but they all operate globally.  They know first-hand the importance of raising awareness about globalisation, entrepreneurship and the skill sets required to succeed. We see the need to incorporate the global business context and entrepreneurship in school curricula, and by working with JA-YE and Schoolnet, we can connect all of the necessary stakeholders.

With 18 participating, ERT companies will provide not only financial resources but also 2,000 volunteers to go into the schools to coach the students and to be judges in competitions working with 15-18 year-old students in Europe. 

Entrepreneurship is not only about creating your own business, but also innovating and creating new businesses inside of existing companies.  It is about attitudes and taking responsibility for one's life and career.

We want to engage and excite young people through experiencing the challenges encountered by our companies in the global economy. We feel this program will encourage them to consider careers in business, science and technology, and to think about the skill sets they will need throughout their lifetimes.

Your joint press release says that 'participants in early-stage entrepreneurship education are 4-5 times more likely to start their own business later on', and have higher rates of employability. However, the European Commission estimates that less than 5% of young people in Europe receive entrepreneurship education in school. This project was presented at the so-called 'Enterprise Without Borders' Summit for educators, that is, mainly for school teachers. Where do things block? What can be done?

We are not experts on where the blockages might be on the education side, but what these statistics prove is that where there is access, there are significant results.  

Therefore it is imperative that we involve all stakeholders to raise awareness and scale up these initiatives. By its very nature, this is the kind of education that calls for strong engagement from business and industry.

In the 80s, ERT helped trigger the '1992' internal market process, with then Chair Wisse Dekker. Later, it prepared a noted report on education under the chairmanship of the Italian tycoon De Benedetti. Are there other ERT education initiatives, past or future?

Earlier this year we launched the inGenious project, the European Coordinating Body in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) with European Schoolnet, a unique network of 30 Ministries of Education.

ERT worked for three years gathering data and talking with decision-makers at the European Commission and throughout Europe to raise awareness of the lack of students studying and developing STEM skills. Industry is facing a growing skills gap and it is critical that more young people are encouraged to enter into technical and scientific fields. 

With a grant of €8 million from the European Commission's 7th Framework Programme over a 3-year period, inGenious is able to link a consortium of 26 partners from 16 countries, and bring together the education experts (Ministries of Education, national science education platforms and universities) and major European companies and industry federations. The objective is to increase the links between science education and careers by involving up to 1,000 classrooms throughout Europe.   

ERT supported the Lisbon Agenda for competitiveness and growth. It is now  replaced by the Europe 2020 strategy, which includes 'flagship initiatives' on entrepreneurship and education. But one does not hear much about these, given the focus on solving the current financial crisis. Business leaders also have short term issues… Why do they care about educating people that will be operational in, say, 10 years?

Human capital is the most important resource we have. Society and industry alike need people who understand global competition, who develop the necessary skills to work in this new economy, and who take an entrepreneurial approach to their lives. With increasing numbers, today's highly qualified technical workforce is preparing for retirement. Industry needs to link with education to ensure that the skills being developed today meet the career needs of tomorrow.

These matters are mainly for member states, schools and companies. Can the EU institutions really do something?

EU institutions definitely have an important role to play because they can act beyond borders. One of the most important roles is to identify innovative programs and best practices in education and help these programs grow and spread throughout Europe. 

Another is to encourage reflection about the jobs and careers of the future and the key competencies and skill sets necessary to fulfill them. The EU Commission has also led on the issue of life-long learning which industry feels is imperative given the changing landscape of the global economy.

Entrepreneurship is another area in which the EU Commission has been proactive in helping to reduce barriers for start-ups and in changing attitudes to recognize the value of entrepreneurship in our society.

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