Our columnist recalls two weeks in the 1990s when he was privileged to have the honour of working with a group of highly skilled young management trainees

Management trainees – don’t you just love ’em? A few years ago I was working in east London for a large building company that shall remain nameless. The project was to tear down 1960s tower blocks and replace them with streets of two-storey houses. As part of the scheme, local people were being trained in building crafts by taking part in the works. I was temporarily employed to help with this training.

The training centre was in the grounds of a Victorian hospital. Two dilapidated single-storey buildings in a corner had been fenced off and equipped as workshops and offices. One of the buildings had been the morgue. All the internal walls had been removed to give more space but the blood channels cast into the concrete floor, where the autopsies had taken place, were still there to trip over. There had been a chapel next to the morgue and, with the removal of the partitions, one arched stained-glass window was left in the middle of the classroom wall. It always seemed cold there, even in the middle of summer.

While it had the use of the training centre, the building company decided to run two-week courses for its management trainees. Two were planned. The first was for younger trainees, A level and first-year university students. They spent one week planning projects in the hospital grounds and a second constructing them. The idea was to give them an insight into the problems involved in craft work. The course went extremely well and I had difficulty keeping up with the students’ enthusiasm.

The second course was a different matter. This was for final-year undergraduate students and even contained a few postgraduates. After the first course, I had great expectations of the trainees. I thought it would be young minds thirsting for knowledge and we would go, in the words of James Elroy Flecker, “where the fleet of stars is anchored and the young star-captains glow”.

The reality was different. If we assume that the two groups were random samples of construction trainees then something very strange had happened to the second lot in their two years of higher education. It seems they had learned a range of management skills. …

Two key abilities are, of course, agility in buck passing and a sound sense of self-importance. So, when they all arrived late the first morning I was told it was my fault for not letting them know that traffic becomes quite congested in London during the rush hour. They also felt that their hotel was not good enough and demanded to be upgraded. I explained that this was outside my control, without much success.

The trainees all considered that they were further up the company hierarchy than anybody working in the training centre. One Cambridge graduate even tried to get me to carry his bag on the first day – I would have, but he didn’t look like a big tipper.

The trainees all thought they were further up the hierarchy than anyone in the training centre. One tried to get me to carry his bag

Then there is the golden rule: make yourself look good. None of the trainees had met before and there was much jockeying for position between them. It quickly emerged that we had a plethora of chiefs and very few indians, and as a result they had difficulty forming teams and working together. This came to a head when it came time to make the all-important presentation at the end of the first week, a contest won by the trainees with the sharpest elbows and loudest voices.

Things went from bearable to impossible on the second week. Here, the trainees demonstrated self-belief, dexterity in dodging dirty jobs and the importance of getting some enjoyment out of their work.

Every morning, after they finally showed up, there was much complaining about hangovers and lack of interest. All the trainees were blessed with the certainties of youth and all thought they knew more than I did. During the second week there was a marked reluctance to get their hands dirty by building anything. I tried several pep talks to “stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood” Henry V-style, but to no avail.

As in the first week, it was very difficult to get the trainees to work together and most days seemed to consist of them talking loudly into mobiles. The incident that sticks in my mind was a walk down the road with a trainee called Eddy, who was carrying two spades. When he spotted some people he knew playing football on waste ground, he dropped the spades and ran off to join them. When he returned an hour later, they were still lying in the road with the traffic driving around them. He seemed surprised that I wasn’t still standing next to them. By the last day they’d given up completely, apart from Eddy, who ran over my foot with a wheelbarrow, giving me a black toenail for months.

I left the company soon after, but the management trainees must have gone on to become site managers, captains of industry or perhaps even emperors of the universe, as they all thought they were destined to be. So be afraid, be very afraid, as they must still be out there, perhaps working close to you right now.

John Smith is a clerk of works for property consultant Cluttons