Irish success stories who carved out careers without a degree
University of Life can be as worthwhile as any degree...
It's that time of year again, when teenagers across the land are handed a small slip of paper that will likely change the course of their lives.
Yet for every photogenic, thrilled youngster that we see jumping for joy on this week's newspaper covers, there are countless others for whom the prospect of university stops here. But is a degree all it's cracked up to be?
According to a 2013 report, the average cost of going to college in Ireland now stands at just under €10,000 a year. A study by the Irish League of Credit Unions found that nine out of 10 parents support their child through third-level education, contributing on average €421 a month.
After this hefty spend, it's often right into Ireland's growing internship sector for most graduates: working for free (or a pittance, if they're lucky) with little or no end in sight. As of September 2013, there were 86,000 Irish people in publicly funded 'labour activation schemes'. This number has nearly doubled in four years - up from 45,000 in 2009.
US research also paints a rather dispiriting picture for graduates, too: according to one recent report, only 27pc of college graduates end up in a job that's related to their degree.
Yet it's not all doom and gloom: in the UK, new data has shown that one in five university graduates go on to become millionaires, while just 3pc of millionaires in the UK have no formal qualifications.
There's little disputing that a university education often helps that exhausting climb up the greasy career pole. In some sectors, a professional qualification is a non-negotiable requirement. But what of those whose first career step was right onto the proverbial shop floor?
The university of life, the school of hard knocks, the road less travelled. Whatever you want to call it, it's had a hand to play in many success stories, too.
PR Guru/columnist Terry Prone founded the Communications Clinic (thecommunications-clinic.ie) along with her husband Tom Savage
"From the time I was seven, I'd my career path all sorted. I was going to be an actor with the Abbey. My parents did a deal with me; I could do all I wanted, and as long as I got a good Leaving Cert, they would then pay for me to get a university degree.
"So I went into UCD to do Arts. There I was, struggling and hating university, and the Abbey asks me to travel with a play to London. I said 'feck the degree' and became a dropout.
"One of the big lessons I learned through working was, if you're freelance, you deliver better than they're expecting, earlier than they're expecting. Always. You never make excuses.
"In the workplace, I was watching other people and trying to capture the things they did really well. I was always asking people for advice, tips and insights.
"When hiring, I notice the difference between grads and non-grads. Preserve me from people with six degrees - and six degrees of separation from basic communication skills, like listening, questioning, paying attention, spelling and punctuation.
"Give me people who are funny, energetic, un-selfconscious, un-pompous, who know what they don't know and aren't ashamed to ask obvious questions.
"My son has always sent me up rotten about not having a degree. He knows damn well that underneath it all, I'm fierce impressed by academic qualifications and, if I had the time, would be ashamed of not having one. Nobody's ever asked me for one, though. I was lucky to come along at a time when proving you could do the job was more important than having a degree.
"Am I ever wistful for a university education? Yeah, for maybe 30 seconds. Then I remember how brutally unhappy I was in university and how, to this day, it's those miseries that surface in my nightmares."
Jenny Greene is a DJ on RTE 2FM, and club/events DJ (djjennygreene.com).
‘I’m not sure radio can be taught in college. For me, it worked to get stuck in and literally work for free. I was 15 when I asked Mark McCabe at Pulse FM if I could come in and work. I went in after school and answered the phone to take requests. They soon gave me a show at the crack of dawn, which I did for two years until Pulse closed down. Then the programme director of FM 104 asked me to come in and do a weekend breakfast show. I remember talking to my mum and dad about it, and they were unanimous: ‘Just leave school. You might get more work if you’re available.’ I wasn’t academic at all, so I did just that.
“So much of that experience has stuck with me. I needed to get rapped on the knuckles, in a good way. I got a set of decks and a mixer when I was 12 for Christmas, and I spent hours on them doing things over and over. Radio is exactly the same. You can’t be taught how to find a way to talk on air that people will relate to.
“That said, I know that what I do isn’t a pensionable job. There’s no real job security, degree or not. I’ll only ever celebrate a new job or show when the contract is signed. I don’t know what else I could do if radio fell by the wayside, but hopefully I won’t have to worry about that too much. When people tell me to look at doing other things, I think, ‘well, look at Larry Gogan. If he’s managed such a long career, why can’t I?’”
Morag Prunty is a former magazine editor who has written four books under her own name and six novels under the name Kate Kerrigan. Kate’s latest book, ‘The Lost Garden’, is out now (katekerriganauthor.blogspot.ie).
‘I could not get on at school at all, despite my parents being teachers. When I was 15, after I’d failed most of my exams, I left school and became a hairdresser. I only had a desire to write, but I’d been told so many times that I wasn’t any good at that sort of thing.
“When I was a fully-qualified hairdresser in London at 19, one of my clients came in and told me that her husband was an editor at Just 17 magazine. I was petrified to meet him, but he liked a piece I had written.
“I thought that no magazine would give me a job without a degree, but I started writing about hair and beauty and got in the back door that way. It led to a job as a beauty editor and an eventual magazine editor at the age of 22. I was so desperately astonished not to be a hairdresser anymore.
“I couldn’t have had a better start than working in salons. You have to get on with different people and sell yourself. I spent a lot of my early hairdressing career cleaning toilets.
“I do meet people from time to time who were brilliant in school and had an amazing education, but there’s a sense of entitlement there. No one ever told me I was clever or good; in fact, I was put down and discouraged by teachers who didn’t get me.
“When I was at Irish Tatler, the (college) points for journalism were phenomenally high. There were a lot of kids coming out of college who didn’t know how to answer a phone. Education is a wonderful thing to do for its own sake, and everyone should avail of as much as they can and stuff their brains with it, but it doesn’t necessarily follow through into the real world.”
Derry-born entrepreneur Gary Martin started running his own nightclub at 15, before owning a company to the value of $20m at the age of 18. Now 26, he works in a number of areas (including construction and property) and stars in BBC TV show Million Dollar Intern.
‘I had lots of businesses while still at school and as time went on, I attended less and less. I had a fruit machine business, car boot sale business and ran a nightclub — so by the time I left school I was already pretty much in the full flow of working.
“I had no time to think about leaving school and didn’t really notice I wasn’t there anymore as my focus hadn’t been on it for a long time. I considered college. I enrolled and was accepted to do law/accountancy at Derry University of Ulster. I went for two weeks, attending three classes and never went back. I couldn’t juggle that and the business.
“Because I was working so much during that time when my friends were at university I lost contact with many of them as I had a very different focus. I never experienced any envy from my friends and I think I had friends who didn’t really look at what I was doing in that way. I do think some of them found it hard to understand why I was working so hard and not partying it up.
“Everyone has their own path and I do often wonder where I would be if I had taken the university path. Who knows?
“I feel that having that time that I would have spent at uni focused on learning about the basics of running a business and being thrown in at the deep end have given me an education I don’t think any degree could have.
“There were times when the pressure was on in the business or I was having a bad day, and I would speak to my friends at uni, and hear how they were having a blast. Then I would think, ‘have I made the wrong call with all this responsibility?’ but I would always come back to a feeling that I would never want to take any other path. This one gives me so much excitement, freedom and fun.”
Debbie Deegan is the founder of the Irish charity To Russia With Love, which provides programmes of care to abandoned and orphaned children in Russia (torussiawithlove.ie)
"It wasn’t that unusual for people of my age (50) not to go to college. I went to a private, jolly-hockey-sticks school but only the brainboxes, who wanted to be lawyers, doctors or teachers, went to university. I had been working as a Saturday girl in a chain of clothes shops called Mirror Mirror, and they decided to train go-getting females up to management, so I was one of their first trainee managers.
“My work ethic was definitely honed there, working Christmas Eve and on Saturdays. I’d decided I’d given Mirror Mirror my all, and opted to stay home and have babies. A few years in, I wanted something to do, so we invited Russian children into our home for a holiday. That was when I decided to do something for them.
“Not knocking education, but I’m more of an outside-the-box thinker and these days, young people just get funnelled down the pipe to UCD or DCU, whether or not they’re suited to university. It’s just a four-year extension of not being employed.
“I’ve been running charity events for years, and if I was starting the job today, people would be asking, ‘where did you do your four-year event management training?’ Take it from me: you don’t need to go to college for four years to learn how to pull off a 500-person event properly.
"When I’m hiring, and I see that you speak Japanese and French, great — it means you’re a hard worker and you put yourself out there. But a degree is the last thing I would look for on a CV."
Joe Macken is the co-owner of Dublin restaurants Jo’Burger, Skinflint, Crackbird and Bear (joburger.ie)
‘I went to Shannon (catering) College but didn’t graduate because I basically failed my finals. I failed the marketing exam, which is mad because our company is all about marketing restaurants across town. But of everyone out of my year, only a handful of them have their own businesses.
“I grew up in our family hotel in Slane, and I learnt loads of rules at the very start: muck in; don’t wait for something to happen; be willing to do every job; be mindful of other people. We were very lucky that we got such a good grounding.
“I’ve never been a brainbox, and even now I’m crap at accounting, but I’ve built a crew around the idea that it’s important to do something you love. And 70pc of my staff — managers, chefs — don’t have a college education, and it’s not important. Look at Mark Zuckerberg, who dropped out of college.
“Do I regret not getting the qualification? The thing is, I can make food, and with restaurants, no matter what happens, you can always get back on your feet if you’re willing to do the work.
“I sort of look back and think, ‘feck it, it’s not that important’, but sometimes I think that me not finishing the course probably sends out a not-great message to the students who are there now.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get an invite back.”
Edwina Gaisford St-Lawrence is the owner of The Kitchen In The Castle Cookery School, situated at Howth Castle in County Dublin. (thekitcheninthecastle.com)
‘I can’t say I excelled at school, but after doing a year-long cordon bleu course, I was employed by Justin de Blank in London, which was probably the Ottolenghi of its time. It’s a business in which you learn an awful lot more on the ground. I cooked for Justin de Blank for four years and eventually moved up the management ladder before coming back to Ireland in 2007.
“I did much better in life having not gone to college, but then I’m a great believer in apprenticeships. A lot of people leave college without the ability to secure employment, but if you’re starting on the ground like I did, you can have equally as many opportunities come your way.
“I’ve learnt that everyone on your team has something to offer — you might be a kitchen porter that has some of the best ideas. Just because you have the lowest title, doesn’t mean you’re the least-skilled person in the room. When I hire people, I look for enthusiasm, an ability to communicate and a love of food. You need to teach people how to cook in a relaxed and informative manner — where you picked up those skills doesn’t really matter to me.”