Worker Bee Skills

I believe all managers should have been “hands-on” at some point in their career

Last year, in the summer of 2013, on a Friday evening whilst sat drink-in-hand outside one of my local pubs, I received a telephone call from my sister. Following a spot of idle chitchat she got to the main thrust of the call; a favour request. She explained that her husband’s 22 year old nephew was in the midst of a degree in Information Technology Management, and with two years completed it was time for his placement year. He had, however, drawn a blank from every job application he had made. My sister didn’t request that I consider employing him; she simply asked if he could arrange a telephone conversation with me at some point to discuss the industry and get some advice about his options.

I never did a placement year at university – I wanted to get out into the working world as quickly as possible, to complete my degree in the minimum amount of time and get my career in motion – but I appreciate that many students are denied this freedom; some universities don’t give you the choice, at some, you must do a placement. When doing his degree one of my staff struggled to find a suitable position so ended up having to do his placement completely unpaid, essentially doing a year of volunteering in the IT department of a 6th form college. The role may have lacked remuneration, but the experience he gained during the work was invaluable; it possibly made the difference between me hiring him or not.

So my brother-in-law’s nephew got in touch, we arranged a suitable time, and over the phone we talked for an hour about how I utterly sympathised with his predicament, how shit this stage in a career is, and how he’ll inevitably have similar issues in another two years when he graduates, when he’ll have to go through this all over again. Only next time he’ll be applying for work to earn a crust, so the pressure will be even worse.

Looking over his CV, I mentally noted the obvious problem with undergraduate résumés; there’s never enough meat. He expressed to me that his ambition was a career in IT management, and playing devil’s advocate my response was to ask him what was his intended path to this exalted managerial position, i.e. What job are you going to perform to earn your stripes?

There’s no company out there just handing out commanding roles to green graduates – my point was: you need skills as a mere worker bee. I wanted techie stuff from him; what was his preferred programming language; what databases could he install, setup and administer; what specialist software packages could he drive; what network and server technologies he knew. I don’t believe that anyone should be put into a position of management when they haven’t actually performed the job that they are now responsible for. I’m not talking about whether you’ve earned the position or not, I’m talking about whether you’ve experienced the daily tribulations that your subordinates do. Whether you’re a manager or not, you need to have some worker bee skills.

A bee, photographed in my garden

I’ve worked with many a middle-manager who was awarded the position based solely on a career of pure management, somehow having wriggled their way from job to job without ever having understood the lives of the people they’re managing. All they have ever known is a world of methodology and report, of meeting and email, of appraisal and review. I don’t consider this management.

Unfortunately my brother-in-law’s nephew has yet to get a placement job. He admits he lacks the pure technical skills that most people recruiting for a placement computing student desire, and ultimately he admits that the technical sides of IT don’t really interest him at all. I am concerned for him, I fear he has chosen the wrong career path, as without those worker bee skills I know he will have to fight to find work in this industry. If a CV doesn’t have meat then it must show desire, and with neither of these I know that he’s going to struggle.