THE BLOG

How Business Leaders Can Engage Young People and Help Them Rise Above Their Circumstances

05/07/2015 02:11 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016

Is America's current educational delivery system producing the desired results for business and industry today? Despite instant access to infinite information thanks to modern advances in technology, many of today's students are bored of the traditional classroom setting. Why sit through a lecture or take a test when all of the answers are at your fingertips? Unchallenged and uninspired, many young students find themselves abandoning the classroom and instead drifting towards a life of drugs, crime or even lethargy.

This is especially true for at-risk youths who, in addition to school, often must also contend with a difficult home life or a lack of resources and support. These young people don't have nearly as many opportunities to learn new skills or try new things as youths in more middle class environments. Yet, this doesn't mean that they lack the willingness to learn. Just the opposite -- many at-risk students are eager for opportunities to fulfill their potential and a chance to escape the cycle of poverty that typically afflicts some of this country's poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods. What they need is a viable alternative.

In recent years there has been more success in engaging at-risk students outside the classroom through experiential learning, which is the application of knowledge or skills in a real world setting. In other words, it's learning through an experience rather than through sitting in class or reading a book.

This method of learning by doing is catching on in many communities across the country as both large and small businesses realize the importance of mentoring the next generation of talent. For students, it's a chance to learn and develop skills that may be under taught in school, such as problem-solving, teamwork and communication. For businesses, it's a way to inspire students to pursue a particular career or profession.

Here are three ways businesses can better engage young people in at-risk areas and transform them into the next generation of leaders.

1.) Internship: Thousands of the companies across the country already offer internship programs, and it's become a de facto part of most college students' resumes. However, for many businesses these internship programs serve as a source of cheap (or free) labor, rather than as a mutually beneficial exchange between youths and their employers.

Instead of saddling interns with menial administrative work that the majority of students already know how to do, businesses should think about a way to challenge interns and push them outside of their comfort zones. Examples of potential challenges could include special research projects looking at new business prospects or competitors, or a writing project to improve internal and external communications.

This way employers get tangible value from their interns that could improve the bottom line for the business, while interns get a more rewarding experience that will give them a competitive edge when it comes time to find a full-time job.

2.) Job shadow: Some businesses can't afford to take on interns, either because they have such a small staff or because they don't have the resources to recruit, interview and hire a potentially massive group of candidates.

A job shadow is a convenient and simple alternative that still allows students to experience a real work environment while also learning about what skills a professional in a particular industry may need. Businesses should encourage existing employees to volunteer to allow a student to shadow them while they work. If possible, arrange for the student to shadow different people over the course of the day so they can be exposed to a wider variety of roles and responsibilities.

3.) Career Expo: Hosting a career expo on a college or high school campus is another great way to get employers and students face-to-face. Students typically use these career expos to learn more about a particular company or industry. For businesses, it's a way to get face time with potential job candidates and also to get a sense of what questions or perceptions are the most common. In this sense, it's an informal survey of the student population, information that may be particularly vital for student or consumer-facing companies.

For smaller businesses that may not have the time or resources to host an expo, an easier option may be to arrange for an executive or an alum to speak to a group of students about their career and experiences. These conversations can even be done over Skype or on the phone.

By providing these viable alternatives, businesses and schools can ultimately help young people fulfill their potential and avoid an at-risk lifestyle. With internships, job shadows and career expo opportunities, not only are businesses developing relationships with potential talent pools, they are also showing these youth that there are plenty of opportunities for them to develop into business leaders.