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Finding Common Purpose

Some years back, Michael Scannell mentored, as part of the Year Up program, a bright young man he describes as “someone you could tell had a tremendous amount of potential.” He had been working at one of the big box stores, and had a passion for computers and technology. When he completed Year Up, he was placed as an intern at a Boston law firm.

“I knew where he had come from. I learned about the challenges he faced where he had been working and not learning a lot—but at least he was employed. We’ve stayed in touch.”

After nearly eight years at the law firm, he’s been promoted three times, and even relocated to the West Coast. Today, he’s a senior IT support professional for the firm. “Without that chance to get some hands-on experience and exposure to a professional opportunity,” Mike says, “this young guy might still be working in that old job”—not that there was anything wrong with that job. “But he had so much more potential, so much more he could contribute from a career standpoint. It’s an example of what I think individuals are capable of if we just provide the right training and opportunity.”

I think it’s also a good example of dealing with the “handoff” problem between different points along the pathway to lifelong success—in this case, the transition from high school to some kind of post-secondary education or training that results in a good-paying job.

When I posed the following question in my last blog post, I was thinking about the handoff problem: “What if ‘accountability’ was really about embracing our various roles that support more people getting on and staying on the pathway as part of a new 21st-century social contract?” Now I’m speaking with different people about their roles along the pathway beginning in high school. I spoke to Mike because he was on the employer side of this complicated equation.

Mike worked at State Street Bank for 32 years in a number of business-line and human resources positions, including running global talent acquisition heading up the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts. He spent the last five years there leading corporate citizenship and as president of the State Street Foundation. His experiences and insights come from a very large organization and major Boston-area employer, but they’re relevant to any company a “consumer of talent.”

Like many employers, State Street was facing challenges filling entry-level positions. Its traditional approach of recruiters wired to pursue four-year college graduates exclusively and have a heavy on-campus presence wasn’t working.

He saw an opportunity to look for potential employees in an “untapped talent pool” that could help address the problem while also helping meet some goals around being a good corporate citizen. The task became one of figuring out how to reach individuals coming through Boston’s public high schools.

That “required re-thinking our traditional hiring model,” Mike explains. State Street had its recruiters pivot and adopt a longer-term view.

“We were really missing an opportunity. Those four-year college grads we invested time and resources in might stay only six or nine months.” So State Street broadened its approach to “looking to its pipeline” of interns—some of whom were already coming to State Street and gaining experience as early as their junior year in high school, through the Boston summer jobs program. State Street had already invested in training and up-skilling them, and they were exposed to financial services.

“We had many young folks that would come through our doors and literally sit within a mutual fund group or an operational group, learning the nuts and bolts of financial services. So we really started to think about this continuum of work from internships right through full-time employment. It drove us to be much more intentional about recruiting interns with a purpose beyond summer jobs. We took a longer-term view of summer interns as potential full-time hires post-high school, whether they were completing a training program in financial services with the Year Up organization or were planning to pursue a two- or four-year degree.”

Ultimately, what emerged is the Boston Workforce Investment Network (Boston WINs), a philanthropic initiative by State Street Foundation in partnership with five nonprofits: the Boston Private Industry Council, Bottom Line, College Advising Corps, uAspire, and Year Up, working closely with Boston Public Schools and local two- and four-year colleges. State Street Bank committed to hiring up to a thousand individuals who would be served by one or more of these nonprofits and “gain valuable financial services experiences at State Street.”

What Mike describes is a great example of connecting the schools and nonprofits with employers, and all stakeholders embracing their roles by being more deliberate about the handoff between them along the pathway to lifelong success. I asked Mike why there aren’t more connections like this. He blames it first on “siloed thinking.”

“Stakeholders tend to stay in their lanes. Businesses are well intentioned, but they tend to stay focused on four-year college graduates exclusively. The public schools are doing their thing, focused solely on education. The nonprofits do their work. Our thinking about WINs was a real eye-opener: we saw an opportunity to think more horizontally about how business can work much more closely with nonprofits, but also bring the school district into the conversation.” It was all about thinking “more as a cohort trying to solve an issue around talent needs, but also addressing employment and equity issues—all in a more holistic manner around how these systems and stakeholders work together and, in many cases, are not working together.”

On top of that, WINs provided another benefit for State Street: “hires coming through were quite diverse from a gender and ethnicity perspective, far exceeding our experience of what a typical entry-level hiring cohort might be.” It was a “home run” for the company’s focus diversity and inclusion, which was a focus of the company.

Mike describes WINs as “an experiment in coordinated action and putting a challenge out there,” showing how “having three distinct stakeholder groups working together in a different manner can work quite well.”

There are valuable lessons for other employers in Mike’s story. It’s about an employer really stepping up and thinking about things in a new way to solve a problem for itself—Mike acknowledges that it wasn’t purely altruistic—and for society. 

 “I don’t think employers have really challenged themselves to think differently,” Mike says. But WINs’ public success did lead to “many organizations reaching out to us, wanting to understand how it works, what’s different, what we had learned, and how we aligned the company to explore a changed hiring model”—their appetite whetted precisely because…

“The traditional pipelines of entry-level talent may not be working. It’s worth taking a fresh look and adopting new perspective on the real requirements for an entry-level position. Does a position truly require a four-year degree? A certain GPA? WINs challenged us to start asking questions of our line management about the real requirements and what success in a particular job looks like.” 

Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly enough examples like Mike’s to make a big dent in overcoming the challenges employers are having filling entry-level positions. Government statistics have been showing what NBC News called a “swell of employment opportunities,” while other research shows that employers often set “entry-level” requirements well beyond reality. TalentWorks found that 61 percent of so-called “entry level” jobs—sometimes touted as “perfect for new grads”—were advertised as requiring 3+ years of experience! Clearly, we need more of the rethinking Mike advocates about real job requirements, and many more relationships among employers, school systems, and nonprofits like WINs.

Mike suggests that high schools and colleges could help employers make changes to their traditional hiring approaches even further by putting more emphasis on formal internship programs, while nonprofit internship programs such as Year Up and Apprenti should create opportunities for employers to “try before you buy”: provide an intern and see how it goes. These are great examples of how colleges and training programs can further embrace their roles towards supporting individuals in their efforts to secure good-paying jobs as part of the lifelong pathway. 

For my next post, I’m speaking with someone about his experiences trying to get on and stay on the pathway after high school. He told the story, in my previous post, of culinary school not living up to its promise. As I listened to Mike Scannell, I thought about how different things might have been for that young man had he interacted with others that embraced the roles they should play in a larger “system” in which him achieving his goal—a good-paying job—is also their shared goal.

TO READ MORE …

… about the employer struggle to fill positions, click here 

… about the “skills gap” feeding this struggle, click here

… about the TalentWorks research, click here