Generation ‘I’

Compelled to confirm this trend wasn’t isolated to California alone, this week’s unveiling has been lingering on my research radar for a couple of months. In fact, it may very well become one of the most powerful trend reports of 2012 due to its overall cause and effect.  

Say hello to the “Intern Generation,” a new crop of high school students who are moving fast and with serious intentions. This powerful generation of do-ers thrives on entering the workplace early, and many are designing their own internships as a means of gaining experience. These 14- to 18-year-olds are not waiting until college to offer their fresh and sought-after skills and/or services to the corporate world. With the experience section of college apps being reviewed diligently, teens are craving real-world working experiences and are ready to give you their all for an opportunity to shine within your organization.  In fact, this competitive generation references college internships as “so last decade” or “for the late student bloomers.” Similar to skilled high school athletes recruited heavily by universities, many companies have already spent several years courting 9th thru 12th grade students as a means to recruit fresh, young and new talent.

Recently I selected three out of 17 high school interns who are living in the heart of this new pulse. Scheduling 20- to 30-minute interviews required a minimum of two weeks advance notice due to their tightly packed schedules, which would rival those of most executives. After the interviews were conducted, one consistent trait I noticed was the demeanor, interview skill set and conversation depth of each student being well ahead of their years. And all three were very much aware of the newfound interest companies have in their generation, as they shared tactics a few corporations are using to recruit and access their respected schools’ student bodies. 

Due to the minor status of their ages, I have opted to eliminate the interviewed students’ names as well as mention of their schools.

Teen 1 started her first business at the ripe age of 8 selling fruit and vegetables from a stand her family built for her in Orange County, California. This business became an Internet sensation before she moved on, at 14, to train as a member of the Junior Olympic water polo team. This summer, a few months shy of her 16th birthday, she departed for a six-week internship with a hospital in India that she created and structured via email and Skype. Without a structured program or school endorsement, she reached out to the CEO of a hospital about her intentions and goals and was scheduled into a six-week, 24/7 position within the pediatrics ward. Although emotionally challenging on a day-to-day basis due to the gruesome observations and request that she participate in surgery, she returned with a newfound energy and experience that she feels will rival her peers when it comes to seeking employment after college. Also note when she returned to high school for her junior year in September, as the founder and president of her high school “Goat Club,” she received news that after completing a long and grueling process of applying for a grant several months prior, she was awarded US$10,000 to assist her club in providing milk to third-world countries.

After winning a national design contest for beachwear and a US$25,000 grant for her school’s art department, Teen 2 used her personal references (minus a structured school program) to design a summer internship within her dream profession: couture fashion. Hired at no pay by a well-known couture house, she was immediately thrown into the trenches of what felt like a rerun of the popular movie “The Devil Wears Prada.” From alarming executive demands to high-pressured designer fittings, she knew the stress and pressures of the world-renowned runway shows would take her another step closer to conquering her dream profession six years from now. (Remember, she is a high school sophomore). Making the 12-hour workdays and two-hour commute look seamless, she would also add exceptional entries into her networking contacts, which would rival those of a well-seasoned executive!

Teen 3 opted to spend her summer months working for her father, a general manager of a well-known resort in Australia. Growing up as the daughter of a hotel executive, she craved the opportunity of adding global experience to her years of domestic volunteer experience already listed on her resume. At 16, she left her friends and summer activities to enroll as an unpaid intern with the hope that the experience outside of her own country would elevate her college applications above those she stated were top-heavy with “traditional domestic work experience.”

This new generational trend of early-achieving, highly motivated, competitive high school students offering their talent to excel early on and for no compensation is being viewed as much more than a new teen trend. Having a higher-than-average GPA is an expectation, but to submit impressive letters of recommendation with their college applications along with a few years of resume-worthy experience prior to turning 18 is what is pushing this trend out of the incubator and changing the entry-level hiring process at companies across the nation! Generation “I” is very much aware — and in many cases, confident — they are also the root under something much bigger: a new industry! Internship placement companies are opening rapidly, and teens are starting to relish this new movement about “age just being a number” — it’s the grassroots experience that counts!

Companies such as Microsoft are adopting and encouraging others to think about high school internships, as they are proving to be a valuable retention tool. Jean Wyer, head of recruitment for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, goes as far to state, “If you don’t reach them by their sophomore year, you’ve kind of missed out.” Recruiting talent for internship programs is equally as important as recruiting for regular positions, thus the reason companies are attracting attention with major giveaways such as US$3,000 spring break trips to Cancun or the signing bonuses offered at Beers & Cutler!

Another example of the value of this trend is that of an Illinois-based investment firm that raised US$10,000 auctioning an internship. But the most shocking discovery was an auction on eBay for a one-month internship at GQ. It caused a bidding war before eventually selling for US$30,200.00!

On the flip side of the competitive job market, and being paired with the philosophy that “today’s interns are tomorrows employees,” some companies are tabbing internships as a two- to three-month interview for prospective employees.

If Gen I is appealing to your property, just note that it’s important you assign real tasks that are compelling and will make a difference in the company. Although you have to start somewhere, placing this generation strictly in the mail room is not what they are looking for. Although they understand they need to start somewhere, there is an unconditional desire to “make a difference” at your place of business.

Are you ready for Generation I? Are you recruiting interns? If so, are they from high school or college, or possibly both? And have you hired any permanently? I look forward to hearing your experiences!