Michael proves he can do

Last summer Michael Little was a conventional sixth-former, sitting his A levels. This winter, he is an unconventional undergraduate, reading for an external London University management degree while holding down a full-time job.

While many employees study for external degrees, and it is normal for students everywhere to find casual work, Mr Little is unusual because he has enrolled on a four-year undergraduate management trainee scheme with Coca-Cola and Schweppes Beverages, the country's largest soft drinks company.

Other companies in other countries have developed such schemes -- there are seven in the United States and five in Australia. The CCSB version is the first in the UK, and for Mr Little it means Pounds 7,500 per year, a Vauxhall van, a degree from a prestigious university and a foot through the door of a company with a Pounds 750 million turnover and 3,000 staff.

All this is more than he could have hoped for last Christmas, when he was all set to pursue a course in leisure studies at the University of Buckingham. Mr Little applied for the new Coca-Cola job-cum-degree scheme after spotting an "earn as you learn" advertisement in the newspaper. Some 5,000 applied -- around 2,000 on the first day -- for just 100 places. In the end, CCSB selected just 80 students.

But why the change of heart? "It was the challenge. I realised I didn't just want to go to university, because I would have got bored. My college friends don't find the work hard, they're not pushed all the time. Whereas, because I've got a job, I have to juggle with the time, so you don't get bored -- you haven't got time to get bored."

Mr Little works as "a frontline merchandiser" for 35 hours over four days each week. Fridays are devoted to study, and he is expected to spend at least 20 hours each week on his management degree.

Emma Colburne works a similar shift, but her motivation for joining the scheme was different. Now 20, she had already turned down the offer of a place at Exeter University to study social policy, choosing a job at the local bank instead. "It was a really difficult choice," she remembers. "But I decided to go for the bank because I thought a lot of people come out of university with a degree and then can't get anything with it." However, the junior cashier position proved a severe disappointment, and the temptation of becoming ever more employable while studying for a degree proved irresistible. "We know we'll be so much better off than anyone else who's been to university because we've had four years work experience."

Ms Colburne works in "scorecarding" -- monitoring the success of various marketing strategies -- and travels around 1,000 miles each week while covering a region which ranges from Southampton to South Wales. Mr Little performs a different function. Visiting 280 local outlets -- newsagents, pubs, restaurants and service stations -- in a vast area stretching from the Dartford Tunnel down to Hastings, he travels around 600 miles each week, advising proprietors about special promotions, new products, and increasing sales of such brands as Coca-Cola, Lilt and Kia-Ora.

Most commonly, he rearranges the upright coolers where the cans are stored, placing the brands in neat, vertical lines. Apparently, this simple device improves sales dramatically because research has shown that we greet a can of coke like someone of the opposite sex, giving it the vertical "once over".

All this CCSB activity leaves little time for study, and with just 25 days holiday -- there is no long vacation -- the employee-students have to study after a hard day's work. Ms Colburne finishes work at around 7pm, and then starts her university work, which is organised by the National Extension College.

There are also residential study weekends, which take place six times a year, and monthly sessions with an NEC tutor. Even so, it is not an arrangement designed to produce academic highfliers. As Angela Groom, regional head of the scheme, puts it: "The NEC have told us that there is no way you can have someone do all this and still get a first."

But CCSB still thinks the scheme worth the Pounds 2 million annual investment. In the short term, it allows the company to put the concept of merchandising on a more professional footing.

In the longer term, it ensures that the company has access to what it terms homegrown "hybrid managers", those with business nous and academic vision. As Ms Groom puts it: "In terms of general management, there is nothing they won't be able to take on."

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