Orlando is leading the talent attraction race as top companies begin recruiting efforts much earlier – tapping into elementary and high school partnerships.

Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin.

Companies serious about building future bench strength are starting their recruiting much earlier—in elementary and high school.

IT’S A NATURAL REACTION, WHEN CRISIS HITS, TO PUT longer term strategic planning like talent attraction efforts on hold, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Few crises have been as all-consuming as the COVID-19 pandemic and the chaos it has wrought on the economy, and consequently, the labor pool. But even as companies cope with those short-term challenges, if they hope to be competitive in the future, they also must focus on pipeline development. Complacency now can easily put a company in a weakened position once the economy rebounds and resumes at full throttle.

Regardless of current employment levels, the gap in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills is real—and growing—which is why U.S. companies serious about acquiring those skills are beginning their search much earlier. Major aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin, for example, sees college recruiting as just one piece of the talent puzzle, says Orlando-based Missiles and Fire Control (MFC) division’s vice president of human resources, Monet Nathaniel, who estimates that she spends about 30 percent of her time thinking about the talent pipeline strategy and how to deal with “a drastic shortage of critical skills.”

“Once you reach the college level, a lot of career decisions have been made,” she says. “So we’ve really been focusing our efforts on how do we start shaping students at that K-12 level, helping them understand the fields they have an opportunity to go into and what a career path might look like in the STEM field.”

Lockheed Martin builds relationships with local schools to harness that Central Florida talent in unique ways. Engineers advise teachers on curriculum development and visit classes for special presentations on robotics, science experiments and other engaging activities all in an effort to build Orlando’s workforce of tomorrow.

The Lockheed Martin STEM Scholarship, launched in 2019, awards up to $10,000 in renewable funds to current or prospective undergraduate engineering and computer science majors. This year, the Lockheed Martin Vocational Scholarship was launched to provide up to $6,600 for degrees at accredited vocational-technical schools to prepare students for careers in technology and/or advanced manufacturing that do not require a bachelor’s or advanced degree.

“We still need to reach more women and minorities,” says Nathaniel, whose daughter learned through the company’s “Take Your Child To Work Day” that engineering is an option for her. “She thought science and math was just for boys. Then she had an opportunity to connect with some of our female engineers and that changed.”

Electronic Arts (EA), a leader in digital interactive entertainment and key member of Orlando’s innovative technology sector, also sees the dearth of women in STEM careers as both a problem and a potential opportunity. Two years ago, the company launched “Get in the Game,” a one-week, hands-on, intensive summer camp at its Orlando studio, where high school girls learn what it takes to be a game developer. Each year, students from the prior year are invited back for the next level. “So, it’s not just come to camp and then leave,” says Daryl Holt, vice president and group COO at EA. “You start a relationship with us as a company and with the mentors you work with. That’s why we created it, so we could start to build Orlando’s talent pipeline through interaction that evolves year over year.” Participants selected for the program get a guaranteed internship interview when they graduate college.

Ruby Nunez, a high school senior who attended the camp for two years, can now visualize herself as an employee at EA. “Before, when I thought about a computer science job, I always imagined somebody sitting on their laptop, programming for 10 hours, but it’s not like that—they actually collaborate with other people to fix bugs in the code,” she says.

Nathaniel and Holt agree that companies can’t leave it to schools to fill their talent pipelines. At a minimum, the private sector must partner with public education to ensure the workforce will be there. One such collaboration is NeoCity Academy, a public high school in the Osceola County district that aims to partner with STEM-related companies to teach real-world applications for math, science and technology, with a focus on “inquiry-driven learning,” says principal Michael Meechin. “It’s really about pushing kids to the highest level of learning during their high school ages so that when they tackle a curriculum program at University of Florida or Cal Tech or MIT, etc., no matter what is thrown their way, they will have a really solid problem-solving foundation.”

Nathaniel acknowledges that by investing in Orlando’s workforce this far out, she has no way of knowing what kind of return Lockheed will see from it. “But we’re interested in touching as many students as we can to help educate them about opportunities in the STEM field because when you think about technology and how we continue to evolve as a nation, we’ve got to ensure we’re turning over every stone and optimizing all the talent that’s out there,” she says.

Learn more about talent and workforce demographics in Orlando, a region ranked No. 1 in the country for job growth.

Originally published in Chief Executive Magazine April/ May 2020 issue.