Help Students Build Professional Relationships


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By Katie Booth, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility, SAP

There are some 500,000 computer jobs available nationwide, yet only 43,000 computer science students graduated into the workforce last year. And with most kids having little access to computer programming education opportunities in grades K-12, we have our work cut out for us to heighten awareness about STEM careers as early as we can. These statistics are startling, but not surprising; it’s likely not the first time you’ve heard about the skills gap in our country. In the tech community, we are painfully aware of this.

This is why SAP has a focus on building out the next generation of students who are passionate about technology. We’ve established four early college high school programs across North America with 14 partners helping to make these programs a reality. Each school serves students from mostly disadvantaged backgrounds and offers them – at no cost- a pathway to a degree in a technical field with actual work place experiences and opportunities for college credits.

A few weeks ago, we brought our four programs to Silicon Valley for a three-day Education Summit to discuss opportunities and challenges that exist in STEM education models like the one we have. One impediment we face is that there are limited internships available to those younger than 18. This has a larger effect on when and how students start building professional personal relationships. This is significantly important when you consider somewhere around 60 to 80 percent of jobs are found through personal relationships. These connections play an even larger role when it comes to obtaining that first job.

One question kept cropping up in our discussions: in an environment where internship opportunities for students are limited, how can we expose students to meaningful real-world experiences to help them build professional relationships and skills?

The simple answer is to leverage experiential learning opportunities in our own offices, with our partners, or inside our schools. But just scheduling a day-long event for students isn’t going to cut it. Here’s four easy things organizations can do to dial up engagement and help students build their networks, based on conversations we had at the Summit.

Make sure employees are engaged and keep the experience real for students

Employees must be confident, find ways to push the envelope, and encourage students to get excited about their time in the office. It’s not enough for employees to talk about their roles – they should find ways to make the experiences real for students.

Employees could invite students to work with them on real-life challenges that crop up in their daily work, and demonstrate what it means to collaborate on a project with a virtual team. Working with folks in different locations requires incredible agility, so finding ways for students to think on their feet is crucial in these kinds of exercises.

Mix it up with different kinds of organized activities for students

No one wants to be locked in a conference room all day being talked at, so organizations must make sure students can do different things when they are on site. They can organize office tours and encourage students to ask questions about the kinds of work they are seeing, hold panel discussions in different types of conference rooms, engage virtual employees, as well. They could also break students up into groups and have them work on hands-on projects. In a nutshell, it’s about finding ways to bring important topics into the student experience.

Give students homework before and after the experience

Students should research and learn about the company in advance, identify what they hope to learn from their trip and have the education partner map the visit to learning outcomes. After the event, students can write blogs, or share their experiences with other students in an in-school presentation. Students will get more from their experiences if they see it as more than just a field trip.

Give employees a similar assignment

It’s hard not to be inspired by enthusiastic students who are all in when they’re visiting the office. Organizations should share the students learning outcomes with the employees, so they can contribute to them.  After the event, employees can share what they learned with the students (and one another) in a quick reflection. This will help deepen the employees’ relationship with the program and, most importantly, with the students.

We’re not at a point yet—being only three years in—where we can definitively point to success. That said, I know we’re well on our way. We have incredible partners, an incredible staff and, most importantly, incredible students. Cross-sector collaboration is one of the directions we must go in, if we wish to see an increase in the pipeline of passionate, talented STEM professionals. I’m not just hopeful—I’m eagerly waiting to see what these students accomplish once they graduate. And the challenges we face now, while important, are nothing that will not be overcome.

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