Recruiting High School and Non-degreed Top Talent — A Missed Corporate Opportunity

Mar 3, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 12.55.50 PMIn case you didn’t hear about it, college football powerhouse Alabama recently offered a scholarship to eighth-grade football player Dylan Moses and LSU offered a scholarship to a ninth grader. Before you react in shock as a parent might, consider the fact that teenage talent may be the last remaining untapped corporate recruiting pool. 

Most corporate recruiting leaders wear blinders that prevent them from even considering recruiting top high school and non-degreed talent into their professional positions. Not every recruiting leader has a fear of recruiting teenagers, however. In fact the “early-age talent” benchmark recruiting standard was set a long time ago by sports recruiters.

It’s well-known that NBA basketball has prospered as a result of hiring right-out-of-high school talent like LeBron, Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, and Kobe Bryant who quickly proved themselves. In the corporate world, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Microsoft are leaders in teenage recruiting (Microsoft attempted to recruit Mark Zuckerberg after he created his Synapse program in high school). Many corporate recruiters and managers will immediately reject the concept of recruiting high school talent, but such an old-fashioned snap judgment could be costing their firms millions of dollars.

Not just athletes but talent in many different technical disciplines are developing much earlier than they used to. Perhaps the best recent example is when Yahoo acquired the mobile website Summly from a 17-year-old tech whiz for $30 million. The firm’s owner, Nick D’Aloisio, who barely had a high school diploma, was asked to stay on and work for Yahoo.

Recruiting Non-degreed and High school Talent Is Not Unusual in the Corporate World

In the corporate world Google, which used to be fanatical about degrees, top schools, and grades, is the leader in the “who-needs-a-degree movement,” as illustrated by Laszlo Bock saying, “… the proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time … we have teams where you have 14 percent of the team made up of people who’ve never gone to college.”

He also stated that “when you look at people who don’t go to school and make their way in the world, those are exceptional human beings. And we should do everything we can to find those people.”

Because Facebook’s CEO is a college dropout, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear what the company had to say on the subject: “It would be weird for us to require a college degree. If you can build awesome stuff and have big impact, that’s all we’re really looking for.”

EA has recruited young gamers. Apple has also occasionally recruited high schoolers (Chris Espinosa, employee No. 8, was hired at 14). Obviously fast-food and retail establishments have been successfully hiring right out of high school kids for years, but those are not professional-level positions.

More Arguments and Illustrations Supporting the Expansion of the Hiring Pool

The “don’t disturb their studies” mentality is an antiquated one. Below you will find a list of examples that illustrate the tremendous value of teenage and degreeless young talent.

  • Talent now develops early and outside of coursework — with the growth of the Internet and its numerous self-directed learning sites, it is possible for students to learn at a professional level. In addition, they can post and test their ideas and quickly get feedback, which allows them to develop extremely fast. If you only look at an individual’s coursework or degrees, you’ll simply miss a great deal of younger talent.
  • Not every technical field or position requires a degree — many technology areas like writing code, designing websites, or creating social media site features simply don’t require any college courses. Numerous teenagers have shown that visiting and using these types of sites for more than a decade as children is sufficient preparation. Their age may give them more insight into the next generation of users. Mobile apps are another main technical area that doesn’t require an education because the media is full of examples of teenagers who have successfully developed iPhone and Android apps. Technology advances have also made it easy for almost anyone to create one of these apps.
  • Thiel under-20 fellowships illustrate their potential — PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel has gone through three rounds of paying students as young as 14 $100,000 over two years to forgo college and instead to start their own businesses. The Wall Street Journal reports an impressive result of his “keep them out of school” effort including the fact that “64 Thiel Fellows have started 67 for-profit ventures, raised $55.4 million in angel and venture funding, published two books, created 30 apps, and 135 full-time jobs.”
  • Science fair winners produce professional results — Jack Andraka, the grand prize winner at the Intel International Science Fair, demonstrated that even a teenager could develop an accurate test for pancreatic cancer. The many sophisticated accomplishments of recent science fair winners further demonstrate the capability and the potential value of self-motivated teenagers.
  • Getting a job out of high school no longer prevents a college degree — when the antiquated prohibition against hiring high school students began decades ago, the only college option was full-time attendance. However, now that there is an array of Internet, remote, night, and part-time college options, a full-time job is no longer a barrier to starting or finishing a college degree, even at prestigious schools. And most firms are more than willing to pay for a part-time degree program.
  • You can be an effective CEO without a degree — the recent success of Mark Zuckerberg as CEO shows that even the highest corporate positions don’t require a college degree. Other college dropouts like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and Larry Ellison show that the success of non-college grad executives is not a recent phenomenon.

Action Recruiting Steps

If you are one of the few corporate leaders who realize that recruiting top talent that may not have much formal education is an incredible opportunity, here are some action steps to consider.

  • Make a strong business case — convince executives of the economic damage that your firm will suffer if it maintains a “degree-required” approach to recruiting. Start by working with the CFO’s office to find a credible way to demonstrate the economic impact that the under-20 crowd has already had at your firm. The most obvious value added usually comes from your high school or college interns who also will look to quantify the contribution made by non-degreed employees. Also look to demonstrate the value of the innovations created by these individuals at other firms within your industry. You should also attempt to measure the positive economic impact that the presence of these younger, less-experienced workers (including acting as reverse mentors) may have on stimulating and challenging your employees with formal degrees.
  • Start off with a small effort — the best way to prove the value of hiring teenagers or those without degrees is to run a pilot and hire a handful of them. Design the program so that it includes the best features of quality internship programs. Then over time track their output and innovations to gauge their performance and their value added. Also look at their failure and turnover rates to see if they are significantly higher than normal.
  • Use the best recruiting approaches — just as with traditional recruiting, referrals are the best way to identify this up-and-coming teenage talent because they are likely to be well-known among their peers and teachers. Holding an Internet technical contest is another excellent way to identify them. You should also encourage your employees to find examples of their work when they are exploring the Internet. You will have to develop some convincing arguments in order to land them. This is because many parents, teachers, and high school counselors will probably advise your targets against taking full-time work before they start or finish college. As mentioned earlier, offering a benefit that allows them to complete a college degree while working full-time for your firm must be an essential component of your recruiting argument.
  • Provide them with a mentor — although they may have technical talent, these teenage hires may be less productive because they don’t understand corporate processes. Providing them with a “not much older” mentor and adding a social media site where they can communicate may help them to be productive faster.

Final Thoughts

Most corporate recruiting leaders are extremely risk-averse, so it’s not surprising that only a handful of firms have realized the value of hiring from this normally bypassed talent pool. Many leaders and managers hold the antiquated notion (usually supported by high school counselors, university personnel, and some parents) that a corporation should not interfere in a student’s path to completing a college degree.

This right-out-of-high-school hiring is a growing and unstoppable trend that you should get into on the ground floor. Your job is to identify the top talent in this pool and get them signed up in some capacity, so that you can begin using their ideas and skills. If you don’t act quickly and begin to build your “early age talent employer brand” and recruiting processes soon, you may never be able to catch up to the Googles, Facebooks, and Yahoos.

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