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November 30, 2015 Experts Corner

Urban students provide quality talent pipeline

Paul Diego Holzer, executive director of Achieve Hartford

For the average small and large businesses located in Greater Hartford, the notion that their future workforce will come from graduates of urban high schools is often more of a hypothetical scenario than a reality.

But what if a business had a partner agency that worked with urban youth to infuse high expectations and show these young people and their families how to navigate the world of work? Would that make a difference?

It's already making a huge difference in one internship program at Aetna. Based on three key ingredients, the Aetna-YWCA Young Women's Leadership Corps is developing a pipeline of diverse talent that can help Aetna achieve its business goals — and perhaps yours, too, if you launch something similar.

Three key ingredients distinguish this urban talent pipeline:

Key ingredient No. 1: Pre-programming

In the Aetna-YWCA program, the young ladies who participate face the same expectations as all other employees assigned a desk and projects. The first key to their success stems from the YWCA programming that has prepared them for the work world. Before they ever set foot in their internships, these ladies already have had training on expected behavior, visited Aetna's campus through YWCA programming over the years to absorb the culture, and even had their parents involved.

The old-school idea of having someone walk before they run is instrumental — interns are comfortable with high expectations before they arrive and can rise to any occasion. It's impossible to overestimate how important having a community partner like the YWCA is to the success of an internship program. In the YWCA, a business has a partner to design a curriculum that will get interns ready and guide them along the way to stay focused, confident and inspired.

Key ingredient No. 2: Selectivity

No internship program should be administered by managers who don't have compelling reasons to work with interns. That's why the selection process for intern supervisors at Aetna is as rigorous as the selection process for the youth.

Not every young lady participating in the YWCA programming is eligible to be matched to an internship at Aetna, even after young ladies and their families self-select into it. The same is true for Aetna employees. The “right” employees are those who personally relate to the mission of the program, which is to professionally develop young ladies and prepare them for successful careers.

The supervisors are motivated by their own early job experiences, often without mentors in sink-or-swim environments. Many managers ask themselves, “If I had this kind of support early in my career, who knows where I could have gone.”  The supervisors see the YWCA opportunity as delivering the value of a lifetime — and they care enough about the interns to provide blunt feedback, share their personal stories, celebrate the interns with personal pride, and actively look to learn from the intern's experience growing up in an urban, low-income setting.

Not everyone is right for this job, but selecting those that are is one way to ensure the internship program's success.

Key ingredient No. 3: A culture that supports this work

Aetna's core values are caring, integrity, inspiration and excellence. Beyond just words, how do these values and the Aetna culture make this internship program work? We believe the core value of “inspiration” encourages employees to explore ideas that can make the world a better place.

Employees actively look for ways to use their relationship with Aetna to do something impactful in the community. People pursue their passions in ways that are instinctive, making it easy to create and support an internship program with the YWCA. This means that taking on an intern — or better yet launching an internship program with a partner — is not for the faint of heart.

There needs to be alignment with what the company cares about so that when an organization like the YWCA comes in with its mission of empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all — you can find a legitimate fit.

Young ladies who become valued members of professional work teams discover — or decide against — particular career paths. Managers who motivate and guide interns sharpen their skills and sensitivities. In the end, everyone grows.

Paul Diego Holzer is the executive director of Achieve Hartford

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