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Nearly 30 years have passed since I sought my first job. In those days, the most reliable route into print journalism was via a good regional newspaper and I duly set about applying to titles across the country.
The problem came when I got an interview and suddenly found myself having to impress an editor on a paper I had never read, in a town I had never visited. Today I would simply hit their website but then it was less simple. So I would trek into town to the London office of the regional paper and go through back issues, taking notes. Until recently this did not seem at all remarkable. It was what you did to get a job.
I recall those days every spring, when I join a number of colleagues on the sifting and interview panels for the FT graduate scheme. Every year, I see candidates who seem to have so much to offer let themselves down by not having bothered to read our work. I know that harking back makes me sound like an old git telling the youth of today that they don’t know how lucky they are. But knowing this just makes me angrier that they have turned me into that person.
It always starts so well. In they troop, with their degrees from elite universities, a hatful of internships and impressive life experiences. By this stage we are down to the final dozen. The scheme has produced some wonderful young journalists and although the interviews can be tough, we are willing them to do well. And yet, for all their potential, this year about half fluffed the “Have you read us today?” question.
More than one explained their failure by saying they were “busy preparing for the interview”. It is baffling, maddening and heartbreaking. What preparation could be more useful than familiarising themselves with the work of the company at which they are seeking employment? Were they memorising yields on the 10-year Bund or learning the names of the Ukrainian cabinet in case we tested them?
At times, it felt as if they saw the event less as a job interview and more as an evening of speed-dating — there would be plenty of time to go into detail if we got to a second date. The failure to do basic homework seems even more egregious in a profession that places a premium on an ability to find things out.
The lazy conclusion would be to dismiss them as a bunch of smug millennials with an overweening sense of entitlement. But I do not believe that is the explanation. These were ambitious, bright and highly motivated youngsters. They may indeed expect great things for themselves but they are used to working for them. Had we told them in advance what was expected, they would have read us diligently. But we did not tell them — and they somehow reached our door without acquiring the nous to figure it out for themselves.
The answer must lie in a lack of good advice. Many of today’s students are used to being heavily directed on what is needed for exam success or college applications but they lack help in the final straight, when they have to put all these qualifications to good use. Do they not talk to their parents or others further along the career chain? We read so much about how the world of work is changing that perhaps they think their parents no longer have useful advice to give. My strong instinct is that this is a mistake. Aside perhaps from some cool tech start-ups, the basics of interview technique have not changed that much. No one ever suffered for knowing too much about their would-be employer.
Another possibility occurs, though it is one I cannot prove. In an era when all information is just a Google search away, perhaps people attach less importance to the acquisition of knowledge. If they need to know something, they know how to find it out and this seems enough.
All I know for sure is that I went home after the last interview and lectured the spawn about rule one of job interviews. I advise all other parents to do the same — while they still listen to you.
Illustration by Lucas Varela