What It Takes for In-School Youth to Succeed in Financial Services Placements

“We’re happy to teach student interns the skills they need, but the learning curve is too steep. We need them to be ramped up by the time they get to us.” This quote, taken from a meeting earlier this week with the high school internship coordinator at a large financial services company, has become a familiar refrain among youth employers in the private sector. As an Employer Engagement Manager with the Boston Private Industry Council (PIC), I am responsible for brokering youth employment opportunities. I meet regularly with employers to discuss high school internship programming and student-job-readiness, and the message from financial services companies is becoming increasingly clear: students need greater preparation before they enter the workplace on their first day.

Financial services companies have been a mainstay of Boston’s youth employment initiatives for the last 30 years, but as the industry evolves and adapts to new technology, the future of youth employment in this sector has become uncertain. Critical back office functions once performed by teenagers, such as stuffing envelopes, answering phones, and filing paperwork, have been outsourced or automated, and internships and entry-level positions increasingly require technical skills that most high school students don’t learn in the classroom. This problem is not specific to Boston or to the financial services sector. To continue placing large numbers of youth in viable internship positions that promote meaningful growth for students and add value for employers, the PIC has taken steps to rethink our approach to student preparation so that it better aligns with the needs of our employer partners.

We met with dozens of representatives from financial services companies to identify the key skills that students need to be successful in the workplace. In nearly every meeting the answer was the same: Microsoft Excel and a basic understanding of finance. Employers observed that most student interns had no experience with Microsoft Excel prior to their internships. Since interns at most financial services work sites were expected to use the program daily, this is a huge problem. In these conversations, supervisors reported that by the end of the internship young people could perform complex, meaningful tasks and were assets to their teams; however, it would take weeks of orientation and training to get students to that point.

Aware of the time and energy it would take on their part, supervisors were becoming reluctant to host high school interns. To keep these supervisors engaged in youth employment programming, the PIC needed to equip students with the necessary skills before they walked through the door on the first day of their internships. I was able to share some of this story during an August convening that NYEC organized with the District of Columbia Public Schools.

While employer demand was clear, we were surprised by the level of student interest in this type of programming. More than 50 students signed up for our pilot Financial Literacy and Career Exploration Program, a series of weekly afterschool workshops designed to teach technical and financial literacy skills that were not offered as part of their high school curriculum. In a unit focused on Microsoft Excel, students went from opening Excel for the first time to confidently using PivotTables. In the financial literacy unit, volunteers from the CFA Society of Boston taught a curriculum tailored to a high school audience. The curriculum introduced students to critical concepts in personal finance and helped them learn about careers in the financial services industry.

Early results from the program indicate that it was highly effective at addressing employer needs. Over the summer, 34 of the 50 participants in the afterschool program worked in financial services internships. (The remaining 16 students had paid work and learning experiences in other sectors.) These 34 students filled the most demanding internship positions, and were prepared to complete meaningful tasks throughout the summer.

In addition to addressing employer demands, the Financial Literacy and Career Exploration Program has proven incredibly beneficial for students. Because they could complete more complex projects, students were better able to evaluate their own interest in financial services as a career path. Beyond the professional skills gained, students can also apply what they learned to their personal lives, positioning themselves on the path toward financial independence.