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New Ingredient for Student Success:

Social Networks

By Bob Pearlman

The recipe for student success needs an overhaul.

The standard recipe has been to provide students with a traditional K-12 and college program, with its heavy emphasis on rote learning and academic papers. Others believe that such education needs to be enhanced by skills, including hard skills like technology and soft skills such as communication, collaboration, and work ethics.

But a new report suggests that even this better recipe lacks a crucial ingredient.

Produced by global management consulting firm A.T. Kearney and Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, the “2002 Workforce Study: Connecting Today’s Youth with Tomorrow’s Technology Careers” finds that a significant correlation exists between a student’s social network and their motivation to pursue education and careers in the technology industry. A student’s social network is composed of his or her parents, family, friends, neighbors, and other social connections through school and community. Put more simply, a social network is a student’s human connections to the real world of work and civic life.

While the 2002 Workforce Study focuses on student motivation for education and careers in the technology industry, its findings hold relevance for youth development in general. Education and skills are the foundation, but what makes kids want to learn and connects them with learning and personal development opportunities?

“Social networks that can bridge across geography, race and class are key to success in the new economy”, says Professor Manuel Pastor, Jr., University of California, Santa Cruz, who has studied social networks in Los Angeles among Latinos. ‘Hard’ skills are essential, but it’s the connections and mentoring that provide information about what skills are necessary and a vision of how acquiring them can lead to new opportunities for all our residents”.

A.T. Kearney and Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network launched the new study in 2000 at the height of the decade long expansion of the U.S. economy. A prior 1999 Workforce Study [i] found that Silicon Valley faced a significant workforce gap, costing industry $3-4 billion a year. The gap was composed of losses from unfilled positions plus additional salary premiums for workers linked to outside recruitment and commuting costs. These factors led to delayed product launches and lost sales, and significant turnover costs. In 2000, CA State Senator John Vasconcellos called “our workforce gap … the number one crisis facing Silicon Valley today”. Could a homegrown workforce fill the gap? Were local students interested in careers in the technology industry? These were the questions the 2002 Workforce Study set out to answer.

In 2002, one year into a national recession, it’s hard for most people to worry about the workforce gap. A recent headline in the San Francisco Chronicle found that “High-tech grads face slim job pickings: Employment boom has morphed into bust” (March 10, 2002). But people should be concerned that when the 2002 Workforce study data was collected in the fall of 2000, at the peak of the long-term expansion, A.T. Kearney researchers found that the workforce gap in high-tech had grown to 210,000 positions (from 160,000 in 1999), costing industry over $6 billion a year. These figures lowered to $2.3 billion this year, but the workforce gap, which cost industry close to $30 billion during the expansion years, will surely reappear in the next expansion.

The 1999 student had surveyed high school and middle school students and found that they were not interested in high-tech careers, a finding reported worldwide as the “interest gap”. The 2002 study set out to find out why, in light of the great local opportunity for young people to pursue education and careers in the technology sector.

Silicon Valley is the “Silicon Valley” because nearly 40% of its people are employed in the technology industry, defined as seven clusters including semiconductors, computers and telecommunications, bioscience, defense and aerospace, software, technology manufacturing, and professional services. No other “silicon” region, whether Austin’s “Silicon Hills”, Northern Virginia’s “Silicon Dominion”, or Boston’s “Route 128 Technology Highway”, have more than 24% of its workers in this sector.

The 2002 Workforce Study found that the “interest gap” persisted and that there was additionally an “awareness gap”. Increased awareness of technology careers, surprisingly, does not correlate with increased motivation to pursue preparation for technology careers. Other findings include:

But the most significant finding in the study was that a student's social network can have a significant impact on his/her career choice. Students whose parents are both in high-tech careers are more likely to be interested in technology careers themselves. In addition, 83 percent of students rely on personal connections for career-related information and guidance.

The Role of Social Networks

Even though social networks are not part of the standard recipe for student success, it should come as no surprise. Isn’t it through social networks that adults both learn and connect to education and career opportuinities?

Networking, or acquiring a social network, is a key skill of the 21st Century. It’s how you learn, and how you connect. At the Met, a small high school in Providence, RI, kids from grade 9 on are encouraged to find answers to their research questions by telephoning “expert” adults who would know the answer and asking them. Met kids find that adults love to share their knowledge, which in turn makes them more confident to use “networking” as a learning strategy.

Kids at many new small, high schools, like the Met, learn through internships. Kids form human bonds with caring adults, who double as supervisors and mentors. These adults play a significant role in motivating their mentees for learning and connecting them to real college and career opportunities. San Diego’s High Tech High calls “adult immersion” one of its key design principles.

Minority students in a Boston regional desegregation program “noticed that white high school students got interesting summer jobs through their parents' friends, and that those experiences helped on college applications. "Networking is white people's affirmative action"”, concluded one of the graduates [ii]

The need for education to be enhanced by social networks is a given in the new field of “Behavioral Economics” [iii] , where success is linked to factors greater than monetary incentives, including the role of identity and cooperation, both of which depend upon social networks. Kids need to be linked humanly to the real world of adults in the workplace, in schools and colleges, and in the community.

Research on Informal Learning in high-performing workplaces also has significant implications for youth development. A landmark 1998 study, led by Monika Aring at the Education Development Center, showed that people learn 70% of what they know about their jobs informally, through projects, meetings, and networking. Real learning, the study finds, is both social and situated. [iv]

A traditional education is not enough. Students lack motivation for learning and also lack the human relationships to connect them to internship, college, and career learning opportunities. The recipe for student success needs a new ingredient, social networks, or expanding a student’s adult connections. The new recipe should read:

Education + Skills (Hard + Soft) + Social Networks => Student Success


Enhancing a Student’s Social Network

So how do you enhance social networks for all students, particularly those from disadvantaged communities? Obviously you are not going to change a student’s parents or relatives or community, but you can give them schools, and programs, that link them to caring adults in the new economy.

Napa New Technology High School student Stephanie Chu points to her office door at Net-Flow Internet Solutions. Before coming to Net-Flow as an intern, she didn’t know what she wanted to do in her career or what to study in college. “Now I get paid for what I like to do”, she says. Her boss, Dean, wants her to continue working with them while in college by telecommuting.

“My nickname was ‘Trouble’”, says Aiyahnna Johnson, an African-American student at Oakland Tech. “When I was accepted into the Health Academy I started to think more about school and what I wanted to do”. Her supervisor/mentor at the Eastmont Wellness Center, Sandra Williams, expects Aiyahnna to become an obstetrician or gynecologist and to return to work at the Wellness Center and become a community leader.

“After High School, that’s it, I’m out of here”, says Oscar Kegal, a Hispanic student from San Francisco’s Mission High. But after taking part in the Cisco Networking Academy and interning at M Squared, Inc., Kegal says he is going to college and will be successful. His supervisor, M Squared principal Claire McAulliffe, is impressed with the level of work that young people can do. “Maybe one day I will own my own networking company,” Oscar says.

Stephanie, Aiyahnna, and Oscar [v] all experienced a serious internship in their field of interest and developed meaningful and lasting relationships with their supervisor/mentors. Internships, as promoted by school-to-career partnerships, industry organizations, and new small high schools, are the best strategy for developing social networks for young people.

Mentoring can also play a key role. Organizations like International Telementor ( and BeAMentor ( link students with long-term mentors in the workplace by telecommunications. These telementors consult with students on their projects and advise students on their college and career plans.

The best youth programs today connect students with caring adults. Intel’s Computer Clubhouses (, based on a design developed by the Boston Museum of Science, provides middle school students with a technology-rich after-school “workplace” and provides each student with an adult mentor.

Another way to connect students is to help their teachers become effective networkers. Programs such as IISME (Industry Initiatives in Science and Math Education, provide teachers with 6-8 week summer internships at technology companies. The experience not only updates teacher skills and provides them with new curriculum ideas, it also connects them with the industry contacts that can provide social networking opportunities for their kids.

Few students today, either in the Silicon Valley or elsewhere, have such learning opportunities. Fortunately, with the publication of this new study, some Silicon Valley leaders now understand this need and are calling for scaling up those programs that enhance social networks. "The 2002 Workforce Study emphasizes that a cooperative regional effort is needed to expand the social networks that connect young people with the Silicon Valley jobs of tomorrow," said Rebecca Guerra, Vice President, Worldwide Human Resources at Riverstone Networks and a member of the Joint Venture Board of Directors. "We must ensure that young people of all backgrounds have access to accurate, reliable information on high-tech careers and have relationships with role models and other adults who can provide valuable career-related guidance."

Praveen Madan, principal at A.T. Kearney's Silicon Valley office and leader of the 2002 Workforce Study, calls for regional action: "We need to increase students' affinity for high-tech careers in order to both prevent future workforce shortages in the Valley and prepare today's youth to be full participants in the region's economic future. Simply providing access to technology - something 99 percent of the students' surveyed already say they have -- is clearly not enough. Businesses, civic leaders and educators must work to increase students' exposure to and understanding of technology professions."

Madan’s counsel for regional human and economic development speaks not only to the Silicon Valley, but to all emerging technology regions. It also speaks to more than the technology field. To engage the next generation of citizens and workers, businesses, civic leaders and educators need to increase students’ social networks to the workplace and the community.

March 19, 2002

A PDF of the 2002 Workforce Study \can be downloaded at

Bob Pearlman is a strategy consultant for education reform. He is the former Director of Education and Workforce Development at Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network and the former President of the Autodesk Foundation. He can be reached at and This article may be reprinted in the publications of non-profit organizations with the permission of the author.


[ii] Susan E. Eaton, "The Other Boston Busing Story," quoted by Richard Rothstein in his column, Lessons (New York Times, January 30, 2002)

[iii] See Rachel Kranton and George Akerlof, “"The Economics of Education: Some Lessons from Sociology,” July 2001,

[iv] “The Teaching Firm: Where Productive Work and Learning Converge”, Center for Workforce Development, Education Development Center (1998)

[v] Stepahnie Chu, Aiyahnna Johnson, and Oscar Kegal are featured in the video, Powerful Learning Through School-to-Career, produced by the Bay Area School-to-Career Action Network (BaySCAN). To order a copy of the video, go to