The talent shortage is a prevailing topic in many of today’s tech conversations. The situation is only becoming more pressing as newer technologies such as artificial intelligence and augmented reality outpace the ability of university and college curriculums to keep pace.
A growing number of corporations are looking to partner with startups, research facilities, accelerators and academia to gain footing with up and coming talent. But there’s another option that is emerging through the efforts of organizations such as TKS (The Knowledge Society): high school students that are displaying remarkable talent in areas such as genomics, AI, cryptocurrency, the Internet of Things, virtual and augmented reality. While not part of the official talent pool, these students, who range in age from 13 to 17, are potentially prime candidates for internship opportunities for corporations large and small.
TKS was founded by tech entrepreneurs Nadeem and Navid Nathoo who felt they had needed more than what the traditional education system alone could offer during their own high school years. Their after-school innovation program immerses eligible students in advanced topics that would challenge even university grads and technology professionals.
Rather than teaching them the subjects, TKS’ mission is to find bright, motivated students that have a passion to make a difference in the world and to help them develop the skills needed to conduct research, connect with subject matter experts, and develop high level presentations, Navid explained. Some students have already formed their own companies and are at the stage where they may be applying for patents and/or financing their work in such areas as medical imaging and diabetes treatment, among others.
Talent is the number one issue for any company, startup or otherwise, said Rahim Noormohamed, management consultant at McKinsey & Company. “Being able to grow is the most important challenge but you can’t do that without tremendous people with skills that will stand the test of time. There is a need for new deep technical skills and new ways of working. Ten years ago no one could go and learn on YouTube. Now you can learn what you need in 10 minutes from TEDx; and youth are the ones that can actually do that the quickest. There’s a massive difference between them and people 10 years older in terms of the way they think about learning and tasks. Harnessing that talent earlier is a must.”
“When talking technical skills, these kids are on par and even exceed a high number of people actually working in the industry,” Navid said. “They are very, very talented.” One example is Tommy Moffat, a Grade 10 robotics whiz kid whose team ranked in the top 0.01 percent at the last VEX Robotics global competition, which drew upwards of 35,000 competitors. Another is Simon Guo, a global hackathon champion who is developing an air traffic control system for drones.
Khallil Mangalji, co-founder and CTO at Fiix, a home mechanics service that he likens to an “Uber for Auto Repair”, has worked with a TKS intern. “I thought he was a university student when I met him at a tech event. He just seemed like a smart person that wanted to work hard and get things done. Later he told me he was in high school and with this organization called TKS.”
He added that Fiix engage in multiple marking efforts, most of which are digital. “Typically we’d need to hire someone to help us create ads across the web, but when Jay [Parthasarthy] was presented with the task, he wrote code to automate it so he didn’t have to post any ads himself. Now he’s able to run some intense digital marking strategies, from the back of his high school classroom. He has real programming and marketing skills that no teacher could give to him.”
Corporations should not view these internships as altruistic, Nathoo said. “These kids aren’t there to get coffee and run errands. They can do meaningful work. If you align the person’s learning with your business you will get value. Top tier and all companies for that matter battle for high quality talent. It’s a huge problem in Canada, the US and everywhere else. More and more companies are starting to realize they need to develop relationships in the early going.”
For anyone considering tapping into the younger talent pool, Navid offered up the following advice. “Regardless of these students’ skill and talent, if it isn’t a cultural fit they won’t last long. If you can understand them early and get to know them, they may stay when it’s time to form a more formal working relationship.”
Reaching a younger generation can also help in the technology innovation chase. “When you think about AI and machine learning, or the idea of neural networks – these were not mainstream things even five years ago. Now they are. Companies will need people trained on those skill sets. But universities aren’t really teaching it because the world is moving faster than what they can put in the curriculum.”
Startups and smaller companies are more inclined to consider high school internships, largely because they don’t have access to high quality applicants that are scooped up by juggernauts like Google, he said. “Earlier stage companies are willing to open their doors and be flexible and more willing to judge based on talent, not on whether they graduated yet or not.”
This is an avenue that needs to be developed over time, Navid said. “Industry needs to know they are there, to have confidence in them and to start looking to us to do something together. They’re learning that these students don’t need to be babied. They will take initiative, and they will have the tools and skills to learn how to get a job done.”