LinkedIn’s youth movement a small step in the right direction

By Evan Nisonson , written on September 2, 2013

From The News Desk

LinkedIn’s recent announcement that it would be opening its network up to high schoolers (13+ worldwide; 14+ US) via University Pages sent a shock wave through the education community. While there continues to be concern from both parents and educators about students using yet another social medium for building a professional network, the fact is networking is an important skill to develop for long term professional success. It’s also a necessary tool for getting a career off the ground and gets at the heart of the question: “What do you want to be?”

LinkedIn is trying to help young career planners begin building their professional networks. This is laudable but incomplete. Some fundamental pieces are missing from the company’s model, which will be essential for millennials to gain traction in their careers and make the network a meaningful one for students and employers.

For example, many young people aren’t sure what they want to do when they finish school. They need tools to help them make the connection between what they’re studying and how those subjects align with the skills they need for a particular job. LinkedIn’s offer is thin in this regard. Until students better understand what they want to do and how their training and education fits into a particular career path, they won’t be able to build a useful professional network.

Alternatively, some students know exactly what they want to be when they graduate yet they lack direction. Let’s imagine a student who has chosen “astronaut” as her career goal. She first needs tools -- a network is only one such tool -- that provide a recommended “learner pathway” as a way of offering guidance into which classes he or she should enroll in to best aid in becoming an astronaut. For those students who know where they want to end up, there needs to be clear guidance regarding what it will take to get there. This includes who these students should connect with it, but it also includes what skill sets they should foster, what classes they should take, and what internship opportunities would be most beneficial. Again, LinkedIn provides little in these areas, preferring to emphasize the network as the tool for navigation. In my experience, it is a tool that cannot standalone: Even a map must have a compass.

For a network of other students following the same dream, the density of a network helps tremendously. But the platform provided must act more purposefully than merely providing “liking” and “linking” capabilities. It must actively drive students to career choices and create talent pipelines for employers interested in developing key skills as early as in high school. Again, on this latter advantage, LinkedIn’s offer is a bit wanting.

In addition to addressing these points, a platform positioned to help high school students succeed in truly helping them plan for their careers, should abide by four ground rules:

Provide opportunities for career exploration. Before building a professional network, a student must first understand what he or she is best suited to do career-wise. This means mapping their current academic performance with their aspirations and helping them see which careers are a good fit. The world is a vast place with a vast number of needs. Giving students the tools to explore how they can fit into the larger picture and find a career that will be fulfilling given their skills and their dreams is what will make online networking more meaningful.

Provide guidance on the skills and training necessary to achieve success in specific careers. Students need guidance in laying out the best path to get them from where they are now to where they hope to be. This means connecting the dots between their education and their future career, and helping them map out the best plan for their future.  As students choose classes and set their schedules, they need help in understanding the impact of their choices and advice toward choosing the classes that will serve them best.   

Provide access to training, apprenticeships, or internships that fit with the student’s career ambitions. Some of the most important learning a student achieves occurs outside the classroom. Helping connect students to training and internships is important and necessary. In some cases, it will solidify the student’s ambition to move forward on their career path and empower them to make connections and learn valuable skills in the workplace. In other instances, these real-life training opportunities can provide real insight into how well a student actually is prepared for a job. Experiencing a disconnect in skills can inspire students to work harder or inform their choice to try a different career path.

Provide a safe, online environment that allows employers to engage with learners and provide education and career guidance. Allowing students to engage directly with a network of professionals is an incredible opportunity for them as they move forward on their learner pathway toward a fulfilling career. The chance to receive guidance and advise from employers in the field can be inspiring for students as they are able to interact with people who are successful doing the work they hope to do.

Giving high school students access to build a professional network is only one piece of a bigger, more complicated puzzle. For students to truly be successful in planning their future careers, they must engage in a broader set of activities. LinkedIn should be commended for taking an important step toward helping students prepare for successful careers. But, a robust professional network isn’t enough for young students taking their first steps toward planning their future. We need to move them in leaps and bounds if we are to make a difference.

For high schoolers, it’s not about who you know. It’s also about what you know.