Finding the Workforce of Tomorrow

New research finds 50 percent of employers accepting applications from high school students for internships. Younger students naturally come to the workforce with less professional polish, but high schools can still be a rich talent source for employers and recruiters seeking interns, experts say.

Thursday, February 13, 2014
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The next time you're in need of a talented, hard-working intern, you may be wise to expand your search beyond the college ranks.

A recent study conducted by Boston-based Millennial Branding and finds half of 172 high school students participating in internship programs.

Faced with a lingering recession and already under pressure to begin charting their future professional paths, current high school students' drive to get a head start on their careers is borne at least partly out of necessity, says Dan Schawbel, founder and managing partner of Millennial Branding.

"[Today's] high school students don't want to fall into the trap that college students are falling into - graduating with all these student loans to pay and no jobs," says Schawbel. "[High school students] see that, and they and their parents are trying to prepare."

"Next-generation folks - high-school and college-age -- all face contradictory pressures," says Dave Ulrich, professor of business at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

"On the one hand, they know they need to prepare for their professional endeavors - a good job or career," says Ulrich. "And, they may have seen their parents burdened by debt or unhappy in their careers, and they recognize the pressure to become professionally successful."

In fact, parents may be applying some of the pressure compelling current high school students to seek internships or volunteer opportunities, says Schawbel, noting that 55 percent of high school students surveyed said they feel their parents are pressuring them to gain professional experience during high school.

Whether putting extra stress on their high school-age kids or simply urging them on, "parents are a major influence in a high school student's life, and can encourage a student with top potential to seek internship opportunities as they are searching for [his or her] career path," adds Tara Fournier, manager of engagement and member programs at the Alexandria, Va.-based Society for Human Resource Management. 

Whatever is driving high school-age students to concentrate more closely on their professional futures, employers seem to agree that today's students must begin to focus on their careers in high school in order to compete for future internships and jobs.

In the Millennial Branding and survey, 60 percent of the 326 companies polled said just that. In addition, 50 percent of employers polled indicate they are either currently accepting applications from high school students for internships or plan to do so sometime in 2014.  

The high school talent pool is especially deep in terms of social media expertise, and many employers are turning to ever-younger interns for help in using social media as a recruitment tool, says Schawbel, citing the 73 percent of high-school internships that focus on social media marketing projects. (Data entry, at 41 percent, and administrative work, at 36 percent, were the second- and third-most common tasks organizations relied on high school-age interns to carry out, according to the survey.)

"High school students are even more plugged in than college students, and have different technology preferences. They use mobile apps like Tinder, Instagram and Snapchat, while college students are more inclined to use Facebook and Twitter. Companies want to learn these new platforms so they can better hire and recruit the upcoming generation."

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Indeed, employers and recruiters should take advantage of that connectedness in their efforts to fill internship roles at the high school level, says Fournier, who also oversees SHRM's 450 student chapters nationwide.    

"Today's high school students are socially connected, and companies should make sure they have a strong social media presence to create social awareness for any high-school-level internship program, and market the benefits of employment to this highly influential segment," she says.  

Companies and recruiters should also work with guidance counselors, adds Fournier, "to see if there are avenues to posting open internships on campus websites. Or, visiting campus on a career day would be [another] way to help tap into this talent pool."

A key concern HR should keep in mind when recruiting high school students, of course, is their lack of experience in a professional setting, she says.

"One potential drawback would be that the high school-level interns would not be ready to immediately transition into a professional role, and would have limited experience to bring into a position."

As most high-school students are under age 18, HR professionals should also "ensure their internship programs, hours and wages are in compliance with any state or federal employment laws pertaining to the employment of minors," says Fournier.

Nevertheless, creating and offering an internship program at the high school level should typically be beneficial for both the intern and the organization, she concludes.

"For the intern, [he or she] receives valuable exposure to the profession and mentoring opportunities, and gains a realistic view of what it would be like to work in that profession or industry. For the organization, they can identify talent at a younger age and broaden their talent pool to fill positions in the future."

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