Seeking Quality Talent? Engage High School Students NOW!

We all have talent challenges – good people are hard to find and the war for talent, particularly technical skill sets is in full battle mode. Washington State’s business community is in demand for technical skills and the San Francisco Bay area is notorious in its fight for technical talent. There are many workforce development programs and worker retraining initiatives in place to shift the skills of today’s workforce to meet today’s demand; but what about tomorrow? The needs will only continue to grow in today’s knowledge-based global economy.

Many states have implemented STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) initiatives in an effort to advance education in these four areas and encourage more students to pursue careers in these fields.  These efforts will go a long way in building awareness of educational paths students can pursue, but is it the answer for organizations that need quality and specialized talent for sustained growth?

It’s time to “change the conversation” according to Bruce Kelly, Assistant Principal of Aviation High School in Des Moines, Washington and move towards greater levels of integration between business and students to face these challenges. Aviation High School, a public high school, is the “only college prep aviation-themed high school in the Northwest” with the mission of preparing students for “higher education and work in a knowledge-based, global economy.” I met Bruce Kelly at an event held by Washington STEM, a statewide organization “advancing excellence and innovation in STEM education” and was highly impressed by what he’s been able to do to help students build skill sets as well as help businesses meet their talent needs to grow and be competitive in the marketplace.

A key program at Aviation High School is helping students find summer internships at area businesses that allow them to contribute to the success of the business while developing skills and participating in entrepreneurship and leadership in action. Organizations win because they get tactical execution assistance and fresh perspectives as well as hungry students eager to learn and jump right in on even the most challenging of problems. One example involved a Bellevue, Washington based aerospace research company with less than 50 employees. They hired six interns from Aviation High School last summer and immediately had the students collecting and analyzing data on space exploration initiatives and making recommendations to senior leadership. They were held to the same standards as college interns at the organization and developed presentation and communication skills that could never be learned in the classroom. In return, the company was able to move key projects forward.

This partnership is a win-win-win on many levels. The local business gets projects completed, builds a strong brand within the community, and starts building relationships with talent they might hire full-time down the road. The students experience the real world and see classroom lessons in action. They typically return to the classroom inspired and more engaged in the learning process. The school wins because the curriculum becomes more relevant to the needs of the business community and the students are more participative at school and ready to engage in the workforce when they graduate.

Bruce Kelly described it as a “porous school house door” to business and industry. “Schools and businesses need to work together so everyone benefits now and in the long run. We can’t wait until schooling is finished before we show students the possibilities of their career. Getting them involved in real world scenarios for eight weeks during the summer is the easiest way to showcase the possibilities.”

You can read more about Aviation High School’s internship program at:

Another influential program that is affiliated with Aviation High School is the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), which is designed to inspire high school students to seek career opportunities in the STEM fields by giving them real world experiences working with professionals. Each year FRC introduces a new game as a challenge for the students and mentors to develop strategies and a robot for playing the game. Students learn problem solving, leadership and hands-on skills such as computer-aided design (CAD). By encouraging students to pursue education and employment in these areas, FIRST works to preserve the region’s economic strength and advance our global competitiveness. You can see the competition in action here and learn more about the program here.

Like all internship and leadership programs, an investment is required in time and mentoring, but the ROI is often worth it.  If you are interested in learning more, contact the high schools in your area. They don’t have to be industry-focused schools; any school with AP programs will be able to find motivated students. Let them know about the projects you have and the skills you need. They’ll be able to help connect you to students.

If you have experiences or recommendations from working with high schools to expand your talent pool, we’d love to hear from you. We can all benefit from “changing the conversation” and “working with a porous door.”

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"My professional passion stems from a fascination with how the individual needs of employees, managers, and the business converge to produce an outcome. I’m driven by a desire to help leaders and employees find the balance between competing needs so they can work together to address the challenges they face."