When I research Gen Y, my focus is almost always on those already in the workforce, or the youngest in my mind, those who have graduated and are seeking jobs. I realized recently that there’s a group I haven’t touched as much on yet — those still in high school.
To find out what’s going on in this space, I interviewed Samuel E. Kirk Sr., executive director and founder of Youth About Business, which provides leadership development opportunities to high school students. He’s trying to bridge the gap between students with diverse backgrounds — who he said are rarely given the opportunity to learn about and pursue a career in business — and companies trying to build healthy pipelines of diverse talent who can transition from student to corporate culture. His program, which blends corporate social responsibility, philanthropy and experiential education, has already graduated 7,000 students.
Below are parts of my interview with Kirk, and I’d like to hear your thoughts. Are high school students too young to groom to become prospective employees?
Let’s talk about the problem first. What is it? Why can’t organizations find the young, diverse talent they’re looking for?
Kirk: Providing today’s workplace with a prepared workforce is becoming increasingly difficult. Finding prepared diverse talent is even more challenging because of the lack of opportunities to properly develop the necessary skill set to be prepared for the corporate workforce. Is our education system alone, in its current format, preparing our students with the skills necessary to not only secure a job, but to bring productivity and effectiveness to the workplace? There is an increasingly larger “skills gap” between what employers need and what the talent pool available to them is delivering. This must be addressed, as based on all indicators there will no longer be an ethnic or racial majority in America by 2050.
The American Dream is slowly slipping away from our youth today. One could even argue that the American Dream conforms to a much lower standard than it used to. Nevertheless, it is disproportionately affecting students of diverse backgrounds and especially underserved communities. I believe that if we create the proper learning environment for young people, all students will have a chance to realize America’s promise of opportunity for all.
The Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center report that was cited in USA Today on March 20, 2014, noted that of the 67 million anticipated tax returns being filed this year, 45.4 million will be filed by people who make $30,000 a year or less. I would imagine that a large percentage of these jobs are either at or below the living standards one would expect. Inadequate educational outcomes cause many (not all) to end up working these low-wage jobs. Based on the report, at the opposite end of the spectrum, only 850,000 tax returns will be filed this year with individual incomes of $100,000 or more. In my opinion, this disparity ties back to two specific things: education and career-preparedness.
At some point, the private sector must begin to demand a better product from our public education system. Our public education system is producing the majority of our future workforce, and we must demand that our students are being trained with relevant and necessary skills they’ll need to compete with students across the globe.
High school graduates are receiving degrees and yet have average reading skills and below-average analytical skills. The masses of individuals are in the average ranks and in order for our economy and country to function properly, we will need to revamp the manner in which education is delivered to our next generation of business and industry leaders.
Am I a strong advocate of the Common Core curriculum, which has recently been adopted by the overwhelming majority of the United States? Yes, I think we need to standardize the expected learning levels at certain stages of our education system. I don’t know if there is enough research to support this claim, but achieving these specific outcomes alone at various grade levels is not enough to prepare the type of skilled workforce that our global economy demands.
So, in your eyes, what’s the solution?
Kirk: Creating innovative solutions in our educational delivery system is critical. We must first examine the job growth sectors in our economy. We must then posture our educational delivery system so that much of what is being mastered and taught in the classroom, as well as extracurricular activities, is relevant to what will be needed. All too often, curriculums do not provide learning of an experiential nature. Students learn concepts, but have a difficult time figuring out how to apply what they learn in a real-world context.
Youth About Business has addressed this challenge by creating a contextual learning environment. This type of learning environment forces students to utilize and apply knowledge by way of creating viable solutions to real problems. I require that they learn to do this in teams, as we’ve found this most effective at Youth About Business. Our strategy is to immerse students in learning environments where all of the resources to solve the problem are readily available. The students then construct merger and acquisition proposals through their own innovation, thus creating the analytic and creative skills necessary for a future careers. By having students participate in various roles and responsibilities within this contextual learning environment, we address two of the most critical areas for career preparedness.
The first is the ability to work in teams. This ties directly back to diversity and companies looking to build effective teams with people from diverse backgrounds. Yet, this generation does not focus on building relationships, as previous generations have. They no longer have the level of personal interaction that we did years ago, and technology is much the reason for this paradigm shift. Their world does not have to interact with a bank teller — they simply scan the check and it is deposited. They do not call their friends — they simply text them. The “selfie” has become the trend of the day. How do we teach this generation how to interact with one another, build meaningful relationships, and think through and solve problems like the C-suite must do at any major corporation?
This training and educational endeavor of team-building must be purposeful. Our educational system must make this a priority since our educational delivery system is the one place that touches the overwhelming masses of our students. Creating a contextual learning environment that involves students working in teams will address this shortcoming. In our Youth About Business model, the problems our students tackle come from challenges in the corporate community. We do merger and acquisition simulations so students are forced to think through every aspect of merging two entities into one profitable company. There are innumerable problems that we can develop into case studies in our nation’s classrooms. While students are solving these problems, they will be applying the skills that our nation’s corporations need them to have. This process will make the classroom more relevant, the students will become motivated to learn, and they will ultimately have to apply reading, writing and math skills to solve these problems.
This brings us to our second major area for career-preparedness — critical and analytical thinking skills. All of corporate America would agree that our nation is lacking in this area. The students in our educational system are taught by memorization and repetition of what they have learned. The retention rate for this learning method is low. Material is quickly learned so that students can score high on exams. Too often students prepare for the test and then forget what they have learned. In the hierarchy of learning, the things that humans hear, they remember the least. When it comes to things we hear and read, we retain a larger amount. But, the optimum learning methodology is hearing, reading and doing. Therein lies another justification for using the contextual learning environment.
Many school districts have now gone to “small learning communities” as a model. This is a step in the right direction. The only shortfall I see with this approach is, though students couple their classroom learning with actual work experience, many of the work experiences (out of necessity) do not give the students meaningful and impactful opportunities. So to ensure that this program works, we must demand that the many corporate offices that are now bringing high school students into their places of business create meaningful work. This would insure that the students’ time is not spent just being in the office environment, but they have some specific outcomes that factor into the overall company performance. If not, the students quickly realize that this is more a reason not to be in the classroom versus a career-preparedness opportunity. I propose that corporations do this through simulations, so even though they are not actual company issues, the students will see how their final reports and proposed outcomes would factor into the company’s performance.
Is this an opportunity only for “diverse” students? If so, how are you defining “diverse”?
Kirk:Youth About Business has trained more than 7,000 students, and we are proud to see that many of these students have gone on to run major divisions of companies and are making an impact in corporate America. We use a business immersion model where we take students and give them a very difficult problem that we know is not a part of their typical classroom learning environment. When we pre-test them using our designed Business Literacy Diagnostic Test, the average scores have been 11 percent correct answers. We then surround them with the necessary documentation and human capital resources they need to work through their problem. The students have flourished in this environment as it has forced them to work through an extremely difficult case with creativity, critical thinking and innovation.
We define diversity through three factors. First, we consider the socio-economic background of the student. The majority of our students (65 percent) are from underserved and lower-socioeconomic groups, with the overwhelming majority attending Title I schools.
Second, we define diversity based on the racial and gender breakdown in our program participants. Our racial breakdown is as follows: 53 percent black , 17 percent Caucasian, 11 percent Latino, 12 percent Asian, 7 percent other. Our gender ratio is 55 percent male and 45 percent female.
So they go through this program, you hook them up, but what about after they graduate high school and later college? How do you ensure the training they have had leads to gainful employment?
Kirk: It is imperative for unique development and training opportunities to continue past high school graduation for students to become prepared for the corporate workplace. The traditional summer internship program offered by corporations is obviously a great way to prepare the future workforce. One major issue is that most corporations want college students as they are completing their junior year of study so that they can make offers and convert them to full-time employees.
Critical years of development are the freshman and sophomore years. YAB thus focuses on the freshman/sophomore years as a time to hone the ever expanding skill set necessary to secure and retain a job in corporate America. During these years of development, we should create shorter-term internships for students that continue to demystify the corporate workplace and culture.
Creating rotational internships where students spend no more than two weeks in a department during their freshman and sophomore years of college would continue to expose students to the corporate workplace and give them insight into what their future might become. These rotational internships could have the same structure that we have used over the years. They could include short-term, department-specific simulations that would allow students to continue the training model we promote and have a meaningful summer internship while in the process of acquiring their corporate skill set.
We currently create several opportunities for our freshman/sophomore college students. We have several opportunities where they become the trainers in our simulated M&A models, thus continuing to hone their skills by transitioning them from the student to the teacher. We also match these students to many of our partner corporations that support our program. These mentors often council our YAB alumni well past the graduation date.
These students are going to the workplace with a great set of skills thanks to your program. Then what? What can organizational leaders do to make sure the momentum isn’t lost, that they’re still involved in training and development moving forward?
Kirk: Similar to our efforts in transforming the educational environment, the work environment in many organizations must also follow suit. Often I have found that Youth About Business does a phenomenal job at developing students’ analytical skills, leadership skills and entrepreneurial thinking. They learn to be much more innovative. Yet, our nation’s young people can lose this momentum if they’re restricted in their growth.
When I say they’re “restricted in their growth,” this does not refer to simply being promoted within the company and making more money. What I mean is that too often organizations forget to continue developing and growing the employee as a skilled professional. The simple thought of a promotion or a raise is not enough to keep this momentum going.
Although we’re not specifically talking about motivation, the only way for our students to continue developing their analytical skills in the workplace is to stay motivated. This is especially important among diversity students, as they many times do not come from backgrounds that have been supportive of their efforts. They have had to overcome many obstacles to arrive at their current station and employers must be sensitive to this need for creating an environment that encourages productivity and continued growth. The Royal Society video highlights three things that appeal to young people: autonomy, mastery and purpose.
Autonomy: People love a sense of self-direction. As I mentioned before, that’s what makes the Youth About Business environment unique. We give students a good foundation and equip them with the basic resources and knowledge base they’ll need to address their problem. However, we allow them to develop and craft their own unique strategies. There is no answer key that the students are trying to align themselves with.
Mastery: People love to get master skills and tasks. However, this may be where organizations spend too much of their time. The way schools focus on making sure students become really good at trigonometry or balancing chemical equations is the way organizations might focus on making sure employees are good at auditing accounts receivable balances (accountants), compiling complex financial models (investment bankers) or creating blueprints for new bridges (engineers/architects). This is necessary, because it makes people feel good when they get better at something. However, without autonomy and purpose, which we’re about to discuss, mastery within an organization will be no more effective than a student learning to balance a chemical equation purely for the sake of passing an exam.
Purpose: People want to see that their work product will contribute to the overall success of the organization. Often organizations don’t offer much transparency, and understandably so in some situations. Yes, people also want to get paid for their work, but it’s not enough to be paid fairly. To bring out the best work product utilizing the analytical and critical thinking skills our students have, they need to feel like their work contributes to the overall purpose of the business.
One of the ways organizations can address these three areas is by creating unique learning opportunities for entry-level employees. This continued development would also include continued advanced-level simulations that expose entry-level employees to the skills they will need in the future. These can be done by simply pulling past cases and seeing how the new team would have solved the case. This would also help prepare the employees with the skills that they would need to grow to attain next levels of management.
We understand that a learning curve exists no matter what. However, doing so will allow younger employees that have had the rigor of the unique training environments to feel a sense of self-direction, be challenged and not feel like they are only assigned the grunt work, but instead, they’re truly contributing to the purpose of the organization.
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