Cultivating the Future Workforce
#evolve Magazine
April 01, 2021

HR professionals who think they are getting an early start in developing a workforce by reaching out to high school students should consider starting younger.

It’s no secret that companies are looking for new ways to attract talent, with countless studies identifying recruiting a future workforce as a top business concern.

“Make connections with schools, not just at the high school level” as a way to develop an understanding for teachers and counselors, and to allow students the chance to get an early taste of different vocations, said Doug Daley, director of a career and technical education program for the Gilbert Public Schools in a rapidly growing Phoenix suburb.

The school district works with Gilbert’s Chamber of Commerce in its community outreach, which has been limited by the pandemic. The chamber offers tours for teachers to go into businesses and find out what students need to know to work there, both at entry and advanced levels.

Touring the Town

Career panels, for middle school- to college-age students, feature professionals who describe their jobs and how they prepared for them. There are also manufacturing tours where middle school students visit various businesses.

Gilbert is primarily a community of newcomers, growing from about 1,970 residents in 1970 to 262,000 in 2021. It has also seen an influx of a wide array of employers.

“Most people drive by those businesses and don’t know what they do there,” Daley said.

Part of that early exposure is overcoming the misconception that a college degree is the only avenue to a good job, he said.

“There is an expectation that everyone needs to go to a four-year school and it needs to be Harvard or Stanford,” Daley said. “But there are opportunities out there for good jobs and good pay. The person fixing something in your house or car may be making more than someone who went to Harvard or Stanford.”

And industries that don’t require a college degree have changed. “Take manufacturing,” Daley said. “It’s no longer dirty, dangerous work. It’s high tech, with clean rooms, safety and high pay.”

Playing the Long Game

Once those Gilbert students reach high school, they can choose programs ranging from agricultural sciences to culinary to technology device maintenance in the Career and Technical Education program. Those programs offer several different tracks: preparing a student for a job out of high school; classes that allow dual credit for both high school and community college; and classes that help prepare a student for college, including scholarships.

Beginning an outreach to young students is just one part of a long-range focus a business needs to make a high school internship-partnership work, experts agree. It would be unrealistic to start a program in the fall and expect a long line of prospective workers knocking on your door come spring.

But there are more subtle factors involved. Consider a partnership between programs, not people. The people — students, teachers and industry professionals — will change. But, with a strong commitment from all stakeholders, business-school partnerships can endure.

A long-standing Gilbert program with an aerospace business usually involves about seven engineers and has weathered a change in company ownership, Daley said, adding that a program should not train for specific technical skills because the need for those skills can change. Instead, students should receive a more general training with skills more transferrable over the years.

Advocates expound many benefits for business-school programs. They include:

  • Vocational preview. Students get an opportunity to explore an occupation or industry free of cost, Daley points out. It can spark a student’s interest or make them realize the area is not for them. It’s a good alternative to going to a four- year school, spending the first two years’ tuition on general courses and then realizing the field is not for you when you start a program your junior year.

  • Transferable skills. Even if a student doesn’t go into a vocation, they can pick up universal skills and experience, such as creativity, critical thinking, communication and customer service, Daley said.

  • Relevant curricula. Participating businesses can provide input and resources to help ensure program content is current and relevant to the industry.

  • Diversity. Reaching out to diverse student populations is a growing method of building a diverse workforce. Janet Hartkopf, cyber program director of the Institute of Cyber Operations and Networking (ICON) at nearby Basha High School in Chandler, Ariz., (See Filling the Cyber Talent Gap) describes the bottom-line significance of diversity.
    “Diversity is extremely important and not just as a courtesy to our current national crisis,” said Hartkopf. “There is great strength in diversity in cyber. We need the strength of different ways of thinking, problem solving and intelligences to make our defenses and offenses stronger. I explain it like this: If I have a room full of me defending a network, the hacker only has to figure out how to breach me. But if I have a room full of different people, getting past me might be easy, but someone else, [someone] different, has my back.”

  • An understanding of the upcoming workforce. Business professionals working with students will likely witness different priorities than they share with their colleagues. Volumes have been written about Millennial and younger workers’ desire to work more for purpose than paycheck. It’s one thing to read about that worldview in print. It’s much more illuminating to see it in person.

Internships have even been recommended for high schoolers whose future employment in a business is more or less predetermined. In one of the few academic studies of family-owned businesses, Scott Friedman and Howard Fluhr wrote, “Simply giving children the opportunity to test their interests through academic coursework, summer jobs and internships through the high school and college years often is the best approach because it offers children the chance to discover what work energizes them — and what doesn’t.”

Filling the Cyber Talent Gap

Students in a Phoenix suburban high school computer lab are quietly preparing to fill one of the nation’s most critical talent shortages.

Basha High School’s Institute of Cyber Operations and Networking (ICON) has 110 students enrolled in its second year. If they stick with the program, those students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, will be qualified for employment in a field where talent shortages present potentially dire business and national security implications.

More than half (53%) of organizations report a shortage of cybersecurity skills. There are about 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs globally with 40,000 information security analyst and 200,000 other cybersecurity-related roles vacant in the United States.

Business recruitment of Basha students hasn’t started yet, but they’ll be ready when that day comes, said Janet Hartkopf, ICON cyber program director.

“I have a lot of contacts, including a really good relation- ship with an area semiconductor manufacturer. But COVID has killed the ability to connect more meaningfully,” she said. “I don’t yet have companies seeking my students for employment. That’s a task I have to embrace this spring and hit full force in the fourth year of the program when students can take an internship or working project class.”

The Chandler (Ariz.) high school program has the room — and the enthusiasm — to grow. The program has a strong retention rate, Hartkopf said, despite dealing with the pandemic most of its existence. “Our retention rate was 66% last year and this year we are trending at about 80% retention. We have a building with 11 classrooms or [room for] about 350 students,” said Hartkopf, whose passion for teaching cybersecurity comes shining through in a Micro- soft Teams virtual meeting.

That spirit can also be seen in a student video that describes the program.

The Basha program emphasizes certifications, which are key to employment and advancement in cybersecurity, according to Hartkopf. Its main track is to prepare students for completing applied associate degrees in cybersecurity through a local community college. After earning that associate degree, graduates have the option of continuing on to one of five National Security Agency (NSA) Center for Academic Excellence (CAE) universities in Arizona or pursue training and job placement through business school that emphasizes certifications.

“Our program pushes certification because it is so important in the industry,” she said. “If a student applies themselves and gets certifications, they can apply for jobs right out of high school.”

Simplifying Cyber

The cybersecurity field is trying to simplify its jungle of alphabet-soup certifications and jobs (843 entry-level positions the last time Hartkopf checked). A “bank” of knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) needed for various positions and jobs is being developed.

“This will not only significantly help the industry, but also students looking to move into or forward in a career and education outlets as they transform what they teach to meet KSAs needed by their customers,” she said.

Hartkopf is inviting businesses to join the cybersecurity education cause. “Because the need is so great in this field, it is imperative we work as a cohesive group to groom those interested. HR professionals should not be put off by high school students. They very much desire to learn and contribute and they would prefer to do this without incurring thousands of dollars of debt.

“It would be amazing if companies could come in and help. Set up a server, volunteer to help students with capture-the-flag opportunities like CyberPatriot because these activities give students a security simulation that excites them and builds their KSAs,” Hartkopf said.

She also urges help in providing instruction and training teachers. “It will get more difficult to find teachers capable of teaching these subjects as more schools start their own programs,” said Hartkopf, whose cybersecurity education includes attending all the seminars and workshops she can, often being “the lone teacher in the back of a room full of professionals.”

The business community can provide guest teachers, she continued, with most computer labs wired to allow remote instruction, especially critical during the pandemic.

“We have much to do,” Hartkopf concluded, “and we need to work together.”

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