Engaging Young People in Exploring Work Opportunities through Virtual Internships

Q&A   12 January 2022
By Todd Smith, Symphony Workforce Development Foundation

Every young person wants to engage their future now and have it make sense out of the process of school.


We recently caught up with Todd Smith, CEO of Symphony Workforce. He shared with us his journey to connect young people to meaningful work opportunities.


Question: What is Symphony Workforce, and what problem is it trying to solve?

Todd: Do you remember the show called Star Search from years ago, or its modern contemporaries like The Voice, America’s Got Talent, or American Idol? The whole premise of the show was that the entertainment industry needed a more efficient, sustainable, and profitable way to find the talent that would power Hollywood for decades to come. 

Hollywood is full of stories of finding talent in remote locations (by luck). How did the entertainment industry change luck and happenstance into a repeatable, efficient, profitable pipeline of talent from every corner of the country? They started by asking a question: “Are you the next American Idol?” This simple shift brought the unknown talent out of every unseen corner.

Six years ago, I asked myself, “Why can’t we fix the workforce crisis by engaging every young person’s given abilities and purpose with the perfect industry and company?” 

Every young person wants to engage their future now and have it make sense out of the process of school. But, industry speaks a completely different language than traditional education and demands data, ROI, and dynamic personnel.  The same solution can help both the contestants (in our case the young people) and the Entertainment Industry (in our case industries and all versions of post-secondary). That’s the purpose of Symphony Workforce and why it was created. 

 

Six years ago, I asked myself, “Why can’t we fix the workforce crisis by engaging every young person’s given abilities and purpose with the perfect industry and company?”

Todd Smith
Principal Founder of Symphony Workforce Development Foundation

Put simply, Symphony Workforce has set out to solve the age-old problem of workforce development. We create authentic connections between young people ages 13-30 and businesses across all industry segments. Using our proprietary mobile gamified platform, students select and work to solve real industry problems in 7-day virtual challenges (micro internships).

Question: Why is it important for every young person to explore industry in the same way they explore the world of apps, social media, or gaming?

Todd: Continuing my comparison, American Idol asked contestants, “Do you want to be the next American Idol?” At Symphony Workforce, we fundamentally change the questions we ask young people from, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” to “Which of these actual industry problems do you like to solve?”

Industry leaders have challenged the young people of America on our platform to: solve the issue of school shootings, create a new non-styrofoam Chick-fil-A cup, take 10% of the weight off a combine, and how to get students back in school during COVID. These are just a few of the Challenges we’ve offered so far, and the industry leaders who have posed them have been blown away by the answers from 41 different states—coming from private, public, and homeschool young people, young people who spent time in our correction system, college students, and urban and rural youth. The story behind these young people will bring tears of joy and sadness to your eyes.  

Symphony Workforce is not a 3-day or week-long “dull” adult-ish experience forced on young people. We meet young people where they live…on their phones! We are a mixture of the best parts of their favorite apps: thumb-dominated, gaming with friends, making their own decisions, being discovered, engaging experts, being valued, and winning cash. 

All the engagement and authentic access to their future happens on our gamified mobile platform called Find the Why! (FTW!). We provide them a familiar and young person-centric tool to ensure the correct fit with the industry of their choice based upon multiple factors. Those factors include their industry problem selection, assessments, virtual advisor engagement, which post-challenge offers from post-secondary and industry they accept, and much more. 

It all starts and ends with the young person choosing and not being told or preached to. Young people, after 3 school years of being impacted by COVID-19, are starving for connection, technology that creates speed of exploration, authenticity, high frequency, expertise, and control. Because we can engage young people with real industry problems, industry employees, college students as virtual advisors, and cash prizes, we know we are offering something that they’ll grab onto.  

So, why do we think this type of experience and resulting data is important? If we are going to explain to this generation of young people (COVID era) why they should re-engage in school, re-invest in their social-emotional health, and believe that people can get along…we need to help each one Find the Why! consistently and authentically from wherever their feet are standing. 

Question: How do you engage every young person in finding their why when it comes to work?

Todd: We knew we needed a solution that could reach young people across the country and was appealing to how they learn. We kept this in mind and set out to connect young people ages 13-25 to business and industry. We decided to create this opportunity in a virtual format, so they can have career exploration at their fingertips. Give them a digital place to gather with their friends and peers. Give them meaningful real-world problems to choose or not choose to solve. Provide access to some of the industry’s best and brightest leaders as virtual Advisors for their team. Finally, offer gamification and real prize money, and let them do what they do best: innovate.  

Enter our gamified workforce solution: Find the Why

 

 

We have seen through our experiences working with youth, from every background imaginable, that young people aren’t bound by the constraint of “we’ve always done it this way” that permeates the world of work. They question both the possible and the impossible. 

Todd Smith
Principal Founder of Symphony Workforce Development Foundation

We have seen through our experiences working with youth, from every background imaginable, that young people aren’t bound by the constraint of “we’ve always done it this way” that permeates the world of work. They question both the possible and the impossible. 

Question: What is unique about a virtual internship experience?

Todd: It is all about where we start the engagement. Over each 7-day Find the Why! Challenge, participants get to engage different industries and companies and be discovered.  

Young people choose to interact with each company’s brand through each pressing problem the company has put forth, while company employees and college students serve as virtual advisors. Regardless of a young person’s geographic location, life circumstance, or what the adults around them think they are capable of, we seek to ensure that young people don’t face any boundaries if they want to learn more about industry. 

As participants work through a Challenge, the sponsoring company is afforded unique insights into the life/work dynamics of each student team member. A collective win-win is created with businesses gaining brand recognition, recruiting opportunities, and young people discovering careers and educational pathways that “fit” with their personal aspirations. 

By helping a young person align their proven interests with their aspirations and abilities we create an environment where job satisfaction, employee retention, and the bottom line flourish. And, we have the data to prove it.

There is an important equity issue when it comes to access and opportunities in industry that virtual internships are seeking to address. If you don’t live in a town with a particular industry, unless you make an online connection or have someone in your network that can help put you in touch with another professional virtually, you might not have access to that line of work. 

The old adage of “if you can’t see it, it is hard to become it…” has never been more true.  COVID has expanded this issue to impact all races and economic groups across the country. Our platform brings opportunities to learners wherever they are, whether in Nebraska, Atlanta, GA, or anywhere across the country. 

Q: Are there specific stories of young people that come to mind??

Todd: From the very beginning of our work, I have been amazed at the brilliance and creativity of young people participating in our challenges. Students share emotional stories about self-discovery of their own unique power.  

There was the student from rural Nebraska who was living in their car, lost his mother to drugs, and father was in jail, shifting his career choice after his experience on our platform—from flipping burgers as a career choice to going to community college. It was the young man who took eight challenges in a row and leveraged them into a scholarship in engineering. One of my favorite teams was the group of two sophomore girls from Bellevue, NE that solved Chick-fil-A’s challenge and are now on the radar of the most dynamic business university in the state. I could go on for days about the young people from Southern California who came up with multiple ideas on how students should return to school post-COVID; the amazing team from gross Catholic who created a solution for Mental and Emotional Health for teens or the many other special teams of students from all ethnic, social-economic and social/emotional health standpoints across 41 states, students have discovered confidence in themselves and their future through Find the Why!

Question: What has the impact on the communities you’ve worked with been so far? 

Todd: We’ve heard from CEO’s, mayors, young people, you name it—everyone is taking away something different from the impact of FTW! 

For example, in terms of stating the need for this kind of platform, Nebraska state-level leadership, the Omaha Mayor’s office, county leadership, and local industry leadership have all shared how they want “…opportunities to make sure that the talent pool (disenfranchised, economically disadvantaged, and the simply bored student) is fully re-engaged, explored, nurtured, and remain in the great state of Nebraska.” The FTW! platform is a strong way to help address this challenge.

Two of our postsecondary partners, Creighton and Bellevue University, are focused on discovering the best fit for each young person whether in their institution or not. These post-secondaries are asking us to fill the top of their funnels. Jim Nekuda, the Vice President & Strategic Partnerships at Bellevue University shared that Symphony has opened up new potential passions of students across America and helped them see how a career can be a continued means of lifelong learning, not just about earning a paycheck.  

And, at the end of the day, it all goes back to the students we’re serving.  We’ve consistently heard from them that the impact has been transformational. One student, Tyler, comes to mind; he discovered that they were really interested in engineering. Tyler’s FTW! experience led to him earning a Regent Scholarship to attend the University of Nebraska. I recently checked in with Tyler, and he shared, “The Find the Why! and Creighton University’s offer to learn more about entrepreneurship has sparked ideas of ownership in my future.”

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