TERRY PRONE: Bonuses, dividends, titles - what about some meaningful human work?

IF YOU want to lead the next generation of Irish entrepreneurs, then you’d better get your skates on, because you have just a few days in which to get your application on the desk of the Endeavour people.

Endeavour is setting out to find Ireland’s 10 outstanding entrepreneurs and fast-track them so that in five years’ time, they’ll be turning over more than €5m a year, exporting their wares or service, and making a profit. Those selected will get a base for around seven months in the Tom Crean Centre in Kerry and the backing of a bunch of state agencies. They will, in addition to all the normal supports, be mentored by household name industrialists with massive track records behind them, and coached by experts in everything from venture finance to corporate communications. More details are at www.business-startup.ie.

With luck, what could be called the Entrepreneurial Paradox will kick in when the 10 fast-trackers are selected: they will be people who would have made a success of their idea anyway, but with the help of Endeavour will do so faster and on a bigger scale. Because enterprise is like the urge to write: an inborn urge which finds expression regardless of context or of state support.

You can’t create an entrepreneur. But you can stymie an entrepreneur or a generation of potential entrepreneurs.

Now that we’re back to clutching the Diaspora as a comfort blanket, it’s worth pointing out that the outstanding characteristic of the Irish immigrants to the US in the 19th century, in sharp contrast to immigrants from dozens of other nations, is how lacking in enterprise they were. They didn’t climb out of the stacks in Ellis Island and go set up companies. The women went into domestic servitude and the men tried to get jobs as cops. Huge swatches of Irish lads begged, borrowed and bribed their way into police forces, most notably but not exclusively New York’s finest, and into the fire service in any of the big cities. They did so out of a frightened yearning for security, having survived the collapse of every dependable economic factor at home. To be a New York cop meant you were permanent and pensionable, with good health benefits. While a fair number of Irish-American cops, down the years, engaged in pretty enthusiastic graft while on the job, their first instinct was not entrepreneurial. They had learned a limiting lesson from the Famine and what followed: get a state job.

At the same time, back in Ireland, the biggest and least recognised wave of enterprise in modern Irish history was being driven largely by women freed to become entrepreneurs by becoming members of religious congregations. Women who, had they married, wouldn’t have owned their own property and who would have become part of the chattels of their husband, saw a way to put together huge capital, acquire vast properties and change the education, health and economy of a nation. They hid their entrepreneurial intent in plain sight. They were way too clever for that. They glided around, veiled and with downcast eyes, because they were emotionally intelligent and that was the only way to go, at the time. Women like Nano Nagle and Mary Aikenhead saw possibilities nobody else saw and went after those possibilities baldheaded. Literally. If it required that they shear their hair and take vows of personal abnegation, then the hair hit the floor, the uniform was donned and the objectives achieved. Male congregations set out along the same route, led by men every bit as entrepreneurially ruthless as Michael O’Leary, if a bit better at concealing it.

What distinguished the founders of the great educational and health congregations was not saintliness. Yes, they had a religious theme running through their lives – but to talk reductively if respectfully of the “charism” of those founders in purely religious terms is to miss the wider reality of an entrepreneurship which arguably changed Ireland and its economic prospects at least as much, if not more, than did the setting up of the Industrial Development Authority in the ’60s.

These were entrepreneurs who wouldn’t take no for an answer. They were rule breakers who took on the hierarchy, who did deals with bishops in order to do what they perceived had to be done. They were magnetic, drawing others to their cause and using those people to the full of their potential. They experienced disaster but refused to accept defeat. They used their own money and fund-raised like there was no tomorrow. When they dreamed their wildly ambitious dreams and set out to make them happen, they did so in the absence of state support.

That wave of unrecognised entrepreneurs, in common with the Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and the two pals who set up Hewlett Packard, did it the wrong way, according to current enterprise orthodoxy, which holds that no business can succeed without a business plan, a marketing plan and a load of market research. All of these things are valid. But none of them will guide the next necessary wave of enterprise, any more than it will be shaped by guff about the knowledge economy.

The “knowledge economy” is predicated on twin beliefs. The first is that getting people to spend more time in the educational system makes them better. It doesn’t. CVs cross my desk every day from people with not one, but two masters degrees. What this indicates is that they’ve spent almost a decade within a protected system which has damn all relation to the fraught world of business. They are, in my view, rendered less rather than more useful thereby.

The other belief is that the more qualified you are, the more secure is your job. Tell that to the architects, solicitors, engineers, quantity surveyors, accountants and actuaries currently in shock as they stand in the dole queues. Electricians and plumbers may not be doing as well as they did in the past, but more of them are surviving on smaller jobs.

A fascinating new book – Shop Class as Soulcraft, An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B Crawford – makes a neat distinction between “personal services” (like those a builder provides) and “impersonal services” (like those provided by an architect.) He suggests that the impersonal services which can be provided cheaper online from India or China will go there, whereas the face-to-face services will not.

“Physicians who treat patients don’t need to worry that their jobs will be sent offshore,” he says, “but radiologists who examine images have already seen this happen, just as accountants and computer programmers have.”

Crawford’s thesis is that the old breakdown between craftwork and brainwork is obsolete and that more and more education streaming the subservient into fast disappearing cubicle jobs is a mistaken investment.

He also believes that “brainwork” has proved to be much less satisfying than we imagined it would be. And he’s put his money where his mouth is, quitting a highly paid “think tank” job to open his own motorcycle repair shop – from which, he says, he gets not just physical, but intellectual satisfaction.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the economic downturn led us away from the years of bonuses, dividends and bullshit titles (vice president with responsibility for strategic thinking) and into an era where people earned less money doing meaningful human work over which they had real personal control?


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