How high schoolers can boost American business

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To the Editor:

Finding skilled workers is an ongoing challenge for American businesses.

Media reports tend to focus on the lack of science, tech, and math skills. But more than four in 10 business executives complain that too many job applicants lack "soft skills" like creativity, teamwork, and communication. Indeed, a full half of the nation's hiring managers say the college graduates they meet are short on "critical thinking and problem solving" skills and the ability to pay adequate "attention to detail."

Closing this soft skills gap is critical. Fortunately, business leaders don't have to wait on schools or colleges to step in — they can easily take action on their own.

It all starts at the local high school. With well-designed internship programs, businesses can help young people acquire the full range of skills they need to be successful throughout their lives.

While many employers have internship programs for college students and recent graduates, smart companies will get a head start on building a workforce by identifying and developing even younger talent.

Employers who have already opened their door to high school interns have witnessed the contributions that young people bring to their businesses from day one. A recent survey found that 45 percent of those who offer internships to high schools were "very likely" or "completely likely" to extend full-time job offers to their former interns.

As David Bilodeau, a senior member of the technical staff of Verizon, explains: "[Students] don't have any preconceived notions of what you can and can't do, and that's invaluable." He estimates that Verizon makes a "tenfold" return on its investment in interns. One in four business leaders say they get fresh ideas from their high school interns.

I know from personal experience what high school interns bring to business. The organization I lead, NAF, helps high school students qualify for and obtain intern slots at top companies like Verizon, Capital One, and Marriott.

Throw away any pre-conceived notions of interns making coffee; our students work in robotics, plan events, and devise cost-cutting strategies. By the time they finish their internships, they have enough confidence to run social media campaigns, develop business plans, and cold-call sales leads. That's value added for companies — and marketable skills for student resumes.

Reaching out to high schoolers also offers tremendous potential in an area of perennial concern for employers: diversity. Due to structural barriers, too many young people of color never make it to college or leave before they finish. A New York University study found that over "60 percent of the racial gap in college completion rates can be attributed to factors that occur before college." Put simply, companies that look only to college students and grads put themselves at a diversity disadvantage.

These internships benefit students too, of course. Urban Alliance's High School Internship Program provides career training, internships, and mentorship to at-risk students in Washington, DC., Baltimore, Northern Virginia, and Chicago. An internal assessment found that completion of an internship correlated with increased rates of college attendance for young men.

And whether college-bound or not, students who have completed a high school internship programs enjoy starting wages 11 percent higher than the average for students who have not been interns.

Companies across the country can play an active role in shaping the talent pipeline and can be confident in knowing that the solution is closer than they realize — in local high schools with perfect hires.

JD Hoye, President

National Academy Foundation

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