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Companies, Schools Look to Build High Schoolers Business Acumen

June 19, 2011

In 2007, then-sixth-grader Jeff Sherman took a class that required him to read a chapter on the stock market. The information presented, while rudimentary, was enough to pique his interest.

He decided to research the subject further and found plenty to read. Most of it, however, was geared toward business school graduates or the investment world. Finding stock market information that a middle schooler could wrap his brain around proved difficult.

Jeff forged ahead, finding some educational benefit in tools such as the Stock Market Game, a live trading simulation program that the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association developed for students. However, Jeff longed for a broader picture of the business world, one that would offer him insight into the range of career possibilities.

In March, he got his wish when the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania launched the online journal Knowledge@Wharton High School. Offering a wide range of business articles—including “The Rise of Tech Teentrepreneurs,” “Baseball’s Bottom Line: The Money Behind the Game” and “The Voice of a Green Generation”—and links such as “Life After High School” and “Money & You,” the site shied away from the research analysis and think pieces of its sister site, Knowledge@Wharton.

Also available in Spanish, with more languages soon to be added, the site aims to show high school students that “business underpins everything they do,” says Robbie Shell, managing director of Knowledge@Wharton High School. It naturally also hopes to pique their interest in business careers.

“High school students have a lot of misconceptions of what business is,” Shell says. “They think it’s all a cut-and-dry numbers game, complicated and indecipherable. We want them to know how useful having knowledge about business is.”

Such information can’t come too soon because many of today’s high school students are showing a decided lack of interest in business careers. According to the National Research Center for College & University Admissions, only about 3.7 percent of high school seniors want to become business owners or entrepreneurs, based on a survey of 1.9 million students. Interest among younger high school students is only slightly higher at 4.1 percent to 4.4 percent.

High Schoolers' Business Acumen

Given such findings, more companies also have set their sights on developing high school students’ inner business potential. Ernst & Young hosted more than 100 high school seniors in March at its first Keys to Campus program, which focused on college and career readiness, emphasizing employment in finance, accounting and information technology.

Participating students attended one of 30 career academies in the New York City area sponsored by the National Academy Foundation, whose goal is to provide underserved high school students with access to industry-specific curricula, work-based learning experiences and relationships with business professionals.

The two-day program included seminars on how to transition to college, develop a personal brand, and obtain worthwhile leadership and teamwork experience. In addition, students networked with Ernst & Young professionals throughout the event. After the program, the company set up a Facebook page so participants could stay in touch with their new Ernst & Young contacts to ask for career advice or, more specifically, scope out the job scene.

“The impetus behind Keys to Campus was to help students make a better entrance into college and let them know what they need to do to achieve success— develop time-management skills and balance academic demands with extracurricular activities, for example,” says Laurie Brady, Americas campus recruiting leader for Ernst & Young. “We also wanted them to know more about us and what we look for in employees.”

That same desire to cultivate high school students’ interest in business careers, while planting the seed of employment possibilities, is what spurred Xerox Corp. to develop a hands-on training program. Its School to Career program is designed to offer an employment path that mixes the creative and the practical, and in the process get students interested in digital print production. The program, which is available in 41 schools in 11 states, teaches students to produce direct marketing pieces, brochures and more.

“This country needs a steady stream of innovation to maintain its leadership position,” says Eric Armour, president of Xerox’s graphic communications business group. “To foster that innovation, we must develop these types of programs to foster student awareness and interest, and point them in the direction of long-term, successful careers.”

IBM Corp., along with the City University of New York, has taken the development of the next generation—and future employees—one step further, offering $250,000 to New York City to create a computer science-focused school that will span grades nine through 14 and award graduates an associate’s degree.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also contributed $3 million to the cause. Graduates will have a better chance at securing a post-graduation job at IBM, given their six-year access to and mentoring by IBM employees, making the high school a kind of corporate training ground.

The IBM-sponsored high school, scheduled to open this fall, is part of a larger trend of corporate-sponsored education. In spring 2010, Microsoft Corp. graduated its first class at the School of the Future in Philadelphia, whose goal is to create a learning environment where innovation is the driving force.

“This new cooperative relationship that links businesses to high schools will go a long way toward helping students understand that business is the foundation of our world,” Wharton’s Shell says. “Even if a student doesn’t go into a traditional business career, they still need to comprehend how society functions, what a paycheck is, what taxes are, how credit works. Not understanding is not an option if you want to succeed.”

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