On the fourth floor of Norman Thomas High School in midtown Manhattan, past the metal detector at the front door, up the elevator that can be run only by key, through a hallway of bantering teenagers in ripped jeans and T-shirts, sit seven professionals from accounting firm Deloitte & Touche LLP in blue and gray suits.
The troupe from Deloitte spends Friday mornings from 7:25 to 9:25 working as mentors in a program called Virtual Enterprise. For the 45 schools in the program, the idea is to invite local businesspeople to help students set up and run virtual businesses, thereby teaching them the work ethic and skills of the working world.
But for Deloitte, there's much more to the effort than good corporate citizenship. Norman Thomas has become a valuable pipeline to an important pool of talent: smart, motivated teenagers. Along with nursing and engineering, auditing is one of the hot spots in the economy where demand heavily outstrips supply. According to the Labor Dept., accounting is one of the fastest-growing fields, expected to add 49,000 new jobs a year through 2014. So along with signing bonuses for college grads and hefty raises for current staff, Deloitte's managers are starting their hunt for talent one step earlier than they used to: in high school.
Deloitte is far from the only outfit that's busy reaching out to teens. In New York, 79 other companies take part in Virtual Enterprise. In Philadelphia, defense giant Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) has set up an apprenticeship program for high school students. And from Delaware to Texas to California, hospitals are trying to ease shortages in nursing and other vital fields by setting up partnerships with local high schools.
Don't mistake this for altruism. It is employers with the greatest needs who are putting in the biggest effort. "I've never seen a tougher market for talent," says William C. Freda, a 32-year veteran of Deloitte and its Northeast regional managing partner. Freda happily supports the firm's 61 volunteers in New York City, even though he calculates that their time spent on the program equates to more than $1 million over the past four years. "This is a wonderful talent pool," he says. "And this is a business imperative for us."
One example of the return on Deloitte's investment is sitting a few floors below Freda's downtown office, pecking deftly on his Treo and wearing a pinstripe suit and a deep red tie. Rayon Piper, 22, first encountered Deloitte when he was a junior at Norman Thomas. The son of Jamaican immigrants, he arrived in the U.S. at the age of 11. By junior high he was already interested in business, but working with Deloitte mentors helped him mold his curiosity into an accounting career.
Piper started at Deloitte as a high school summer intern and stayed on when he entered college, working 20 hours a week. He's doing that while taking a full course load of 15 credits a semester at Pace University, where he's pursuing a bachelor's degree in accounting and an MBA in a special five-year program. "Everyone said accounting is so boring. But me, personally, I didn't find it boring," he says.
Starting in his junior year of college, Piper began working on client accounts, recently finishing some work on the audit of financial giant Lazard Ltd. (LAZ). "I've been here so long people trust me," he says. It's easy to see why. Piper's big smile and enthusiasm pair with a direct, self-assured manner. His long-term goal: to be a Deloitte partner in 10 years or so.
Beyond hard work and energy, high school kids can inject creative thinking into an enterprise. Terry Lincoln, community relations manager at Agilent Technologies Inc. (A), has spent part of the past four springs looking over contestants at the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair, where high school students compete for prizes including a $50,000 college scholarship. With students from 40 countries and 20% of fair submissions awaiting patents, it's a group that Lincoln calls "our future workforce."
Of course, working with high schoolers has unique wrinkles that other recruiting efforts don't face. Lincoln, for example, must limit internship candidates to those who can live at home and commute to an Agilent facility.
Companies that directly partner with schools have to wrestle with added hurdles. Tenet Healthcare Corp.'s (THC) facility in Rowlett, Tex., must meet state education department rules about clinical instruction for a program they run helping high schoolers learn to be emergency medical technicians, nurse assistants, and surgical technicians.
The 12-year-old program works with four local schools. Most of the students go on to higher levels of education, but the hospital hires three to five students per year, and executives say the program helps them recruit good people for careers after school. It also lets them avoid some of the more desperate measures that nearby hospitals have had to resort to, like paying signing bonuses to attract scarce nursing talent. "It's helped widen the pool we pull from," says Eric Evans, Tenet Healthcare's director of business development. "And it has given us a bit of an inside track because they've been exposed to our facility."
Getting involved with students early means companies can help tailor their educational offerings to their own needs. Lockheed Martin spent more than a year, from 2001 to 2002, designing the apprenticeship it launched in Philadelphia. The company not only offers student internships at $7 to $14 an hour but has donated equipment to high schools and coordinated a curriculum with them. Those courses focus heavily on Lockheed's specific technical requirements, but also include softer skills, such as etiquette for business lunches and choosing appropriate work attire.
Brandy Carrero started in the program as a high school junior in 2003 and is still working for Lockheed while studying for an associate degree. At the defense contractor she maintains a computerized encyclopedia of design and engineering artifacts, a task her boss and mentor Laura Huber say it takes a year to train a college grad to do. Carrero, who's 21, is one of 29 former high school interns who have launched careers at Lockheed. At first, "I was scared," she says, "but I was determined to learn. I feel like I'm 10 steps ahead of other people."
Corrections and Clarifications
"Get 'em while they're young" (The Corporation, May 22) should have identified Eric Evans as director of business development at Tenet Healthcare's facility in Rowlett, Tex., not the whole company.
By Nanette Byrnes