I wrote previously about the “issue that refuses to go away”: the constant cycle of finding/hiring/growing/keeping skilled employees. This month I’m going to look at a different point in that cycle, that difficult-to-identify inflection point where a “major” or a “degree program” starts to become a career choice. If hiring talented people is key, can businesses and organizations start influencing these talented people before graduation instead of waiting to court them afterward? Yes.
Many of us who spent time in higher education went through at least one vaguely traumatic “I’m going to change majors” moments. In fact, research by Penn State shows that up to 80 percent of students entering college do not have a field of work in mind, even if they have declared majors. The most popular major among incoming freshman for nearly a decade has been “Undeclared,” and about half of all students change majors along the way.
Combine that with the observation that there aren’t enough science and technology graduates, and out pops an interesting conclusion: Maybe we should be helping them understand the attractions and rewards of science and technology fields earlier.
While acceptance, affordability and proximity are all factors that influence how students choose schools, the most influential factor is the old-fashioned campus visit. The hands-on experience of a campus can outweigh glossy brochures, objective comparisons, nearness to Mom and even scholarships.
What’s the closest equivalent to the campus visit in the working world? What opportunities do you create for students to experience your workplace — and your industry — while they’re still forming their career choices?
The closest equivalent is the internship. A real internship exposes a future professional to something beyond the “brochure” stats of a company or a field. Internship programs are a great way for both sides — future graduate and employer — to size each other up. It’s not at all uncommon for internships to blossom into full-time employment.
Hardlines Company, a Bellingham-based company (and TAG member ) has provided both college and high-school students with internship opportunities over the past few years. The exposure has frequently had career-altering effects. President Aaron Booker carried over the practice from previous companies.
“I hired several high-school interns in the last ’90s. One of those kids now works at Google; another is a Renaissance kid — through college with a double major in two years. He’s an incredible Web designer and burgeoning digital photographer,” Booker said. “I find that as an employer, the young ones have lower expectations and want to learn — and have few bad habits.”
Booker also noted that schools too often tend to regard an internship as an employment-placement proposition instead of a vital real-world input to the process of education. “Many of the schools expect that interns should immediately be paid. The interns get far more long-term value from the equation than we do. I’ve joked that they should be paying us. We recognize that it’s a long-term investment in the employment base, and trust that the ‘returns’ will come back to us in some way.”
Scholarships pay off for businesses
Another vital way of reaching down into the education process and helping expose students to the unlimited horizons of science and technology is to target promising and talented students, and to help them with the ever-growing financial challenges of higher education, in the form of scholarships, grants and other forms of assistance.
Compared to other business costs, scholarship amounts can seem like relatively small numbers. Yet our experience at the Technology Alliance Group has shown us just the opposite.
TAG raises grassroots funds, primarily with the annual TechStomp event, which is Aug. 6 this year. (See http://www.tagnw.org for more details.) The resulting funds are distributed to recipients pursuing technology or science studies at local institutions, including Western Washington University, the Tech Prep Consortium, as well as Bellingham Technical College, Whatcom Community College and the Northwest Indian College.
Recipients of the modest amounts from our grassroots scholarship efforts — awards averaging around $500 — have told us what a difference the award made. WWU student LeRoy Miller wrote, “Thank you again TAG for this gracious award and helping me on my path to continue to learn and study my passion.”
Whether it’s something as involved as internships and scholarships, or as simple as speaking about your business at local schools, or arranging “day on the job” events for students, you can have a direct impact on students’ decisions about their career paths. Schools are more avid than ever to work with the business and employer community to ensure that their programs and students are headed toward success and contribution. Step up and join them.
Anna Ehnmark is Executive Director of the Technology Alliance Group for Northwest Washington. TAG’s mission is to promote, educate and advocate for technology businesses and IT professionals.