Euan Blair: 'There is so much pressure on kids to go to uni and a lot don't know why they're going'
Euan Blair tells Jim Armitage he's unlikely to follow his ex-PM dad into politics and why students should forget 'education, education and education' and go direct from school into an apprenticeship
The first thing that hits you when you meet Euan Blair, eldest son of the former Prime Minister, is how young he looks. Now he's shaved off his goatee he actually looks younger than he did when the family posed for the media as they left Number 10 for the last time. And that was in 2007.
You're tempted to think you're in a time warp. But no. Blair Jnr is now 34, married to a successful venture capitalist (no kids yet) and living in a tasty piece of Marylebone real estate. After five years at Morgan Stanley and a stint at a training company for the long-term unemployed, the boy who grew up in the most famous address in town is now what so many aspire to be - a tech entrepreneur.
He has all the trappings, from his rented offices in a cool WeWork building in Marylebone to his hipster glasses and sweatshirt bearing the logo of his start-up company. The shirt reads 'White Hat', and he's chuffed with it: "They come in different colours, so I can wear one every day."
White Hat was set up by Blair and his business partner Sophie Adelman, also a banker-turned tech entrepreneur. A dead ringer for Meghan Markle, she's the same age as her co-founder, and matches him for smarts and charm. Their vision is a total revolution of higher education. They are in a battle to get school-leavers to take apprenticeships, instead of studying "useless" degrees.
Blair and Adelman find ambitious school-leavers across London who want to get training for good careers but don't want to spend the time and money it takes to go through college. White Hat gives them one-to-one coaching to match them with suitable employers, then part-time tuition for qualifications when they get hired.
These aren't the boiler-suit jobs in engineering or construction you'd traditionally associate with apprenticeships, but modern, white-collar roles - digital marketing, software engineering, business administration. Client companies include Google, BP and fashion group Yoox Net-A-Porter.
"There's a lot of pressure on kids now to go to university," says Blair. "Half the time they don't really know why they're going. A lot end up dropping out. In so many cases it would be better for them to go straight from school into an apprenticeship and real experience of workplaces."
While he doesn't look like his father, the similarity to Tony Blair's voice is uncanny. There's the same quirky, rising pitch mid-sentence, the determined "right!" when he's making a point.
Adelman, who tends to lead the conversation, pitches in: "University is not right for everybody and you end up in debt. These young people could've been earning £20,000 a year in an apprenticeship while gaining experience."
Blair launched White Hat in 2016, with Adelman quitting her job in recruitment to join soon after. They have 43 staff and have placed approximately 550 apprentices so far. By 2023, they want that to be 10,000. They charge companies £1,500 for each hire, then get paid to provide training through the Apprenticeship Levy - a pot of cash that big companies have to fund by law.
Blair clearly has his father's powers of persuasion. Earlier this month, he and Adelman raised more than £3m from Silicon Valley investors to fund their expansion. The pair advocate that more school leavers should avoid university, yet they both had high-level educations. Adelman studied geography at Cambridge, Blair took ancient history at Bristol. They studied at Stamford and Yale respectively after graduating.
"We compete about who did the most useless degree," Adelman jokes.
"If I'd had the chance to do digital marketing at Google like our apprentices do, that would have been awesome."
Blair, a devoted gamer in his youth, says he would have done an apprenticeship in computer programming, but went to university "because it was expected".
They acknowledge their degrees did help get them their first jobs at investment banks, but say they were of no practical use once they got there. University was just a stamp of approval they call "credentialing", rather than anything useful for the jobs they got.
But hold on. Part of the reason schoolleavers are pressured into going to university is that then Prime Minister Blair banged on about it so much. Remember "Education, education, education?" It was TB who pledged to send half the country's school-leavers to university.
Blair Jnr replies: "At the time it was believed you would give people more access to opportunity; get them to universities and that would lead to better jobs.
"Now we're saying: forget that. Because a lot of it is just a credentialing exercise, a lot of people still can't get to university and apprenticeships are a different way of broadening access."
Even with greater numbers of students attending university, Adelman points out, the top courses are still largely populated by the white and the wealthy. White Hat, on the other hand, has 65% non-white British apprentices and half its intake received free school meals.
Getting people from these backgrounds into the best companies in London is a main goal of the business.
Employers have long complained at the poor quality of apprentices and the lack of decent help from some further education colleges.
Only about 65% of apprentices stay the course and complete their training. Blair and Adelman say tough vetting and high-quality training is the solution. The recruits they have placed so far were whittled down from tens of thousands of applicants. As a result, the retention rate of White Hat's apprentices is 97%.
So, is Blair Snr proud of what his eldest is up to? Euan laughs, embarrassed: "It's funny. People ask that question and I think: 'What are the circumstances in which I'd say: 'No, he really hates what I'm doing'? Of course he thinks it's good because he realises I care about it."
Does the Blair name help or hinder the business? Adelman says: "It's challenging at times, if I'm honest." Euan cuts in: "It gives you a platform to talk about what you want to talk about, which is cool."
Will he go into politics? "If he does I'll break his legs," laughs Adelman. "We've got too much to do here."
Blair says: "I've not really thought about it. I love doing this and this is a long-term thing I care about; employment and creating opportunities. No. I'm not about to launch into a political career."
What about that report linking him to a proposed new centrist party? "I know a lot of the people who are involved in trying to do something in that space," he says. "A lot of them are in tech."
On Brexit, he shifts uncomfortably, to the delight of hardcore Remainer Adelman, who teases him about his reluctance to opine.
Eventually we get: "Erm, I don't think it's the right thing for the country. But that's for a longer conversation over a beer." Given his father's evident anger over the issue, I expected more passion.
But Blair Jnr seems a mellower soul. Until it comes to football and his beloved Liverpool FC. Adelman says: "The only time I've seen Euan really angry was when his car got broken into and they stole his goalie gloves."
Given his childhood, it's remarkable how, well, normal Blair seems. Like Adelman, he was schooled in a comprehensive, albeit a good one - Brompton Oratory. But Number 10 must have been a weird place to grow up. "Actually, you know what?" he says. "Behind the front door it is pretty normal. I'm not sure anyone will believe that, but you live in a normal flat."
Likewise, that incident for which he first hit the headlines, being arrested drunk in the West End after his GCSEs. For many of us, that gave him kudos and sympathy - for seeking ordinary teenage kicks. "Look," he says quietly. "I think it was a fairly normal experience for a lot of kids that age."
One day, Blair hopes apprenticeships will be just as normal for pupils when they finish school. And that, for employers from Unilever to Goldman Sachs, hiring school-leavers will be as common as recruiting from top universities.
"If they don't," he says, "companies will be missing out. These are some of the most entrepreneurial people in the country. Who wouldn't want to hire them?"
With patter like that, he'd fare well on the hustings. Maybe one day he'll reconsider that political career.
© Evening Standard
Independent News Service