Nikisha Roberts, a student at The University of Southern California, knows that college alone won’t guarantee her a job. As a rising senior, she isn’t even searching for full time work yet, but she’s already realized that it’s a huge struggle to get the attention of corporate recruiters.

“One of the most challenging parts about finding an internship is that you need to have experience to get experience. A lot of the time, me and my friends have to get a referral just to have our resumes seen,” she says.

As leaders of organizations that support young people in making that crucial leap from college to career, this is a story we hear everyday. Higher education simply isn’t enough. We’ve seen the writing on the wall for some years now, and we’re not the only ones. 

It turns out that only 36% of business leaders believe colleges and universities are adequately preparing graduates for careers. Businesses are being forced to spend billions of dollars to reskill employees.

Yet right now, a perfect storm of opportunity is brewing for companies that are willing to step up to support the next generation of the workforce.

An American movement to build more diverse organizations has been underway for decades now. Customers and employees are increasingly demanding that companies build more inclusive, equitable work environments. In many cases, big promises have been made without a clear path forward.

At the same time, the most ethnically diverse and college educated generation in American history is preparing to enter the workforce just when traditional internships and campus recruiting have been upended by a global pandemic.

As companies seek ways to navigate remote, onsite, and hybrid work environments, the time is ripe to adopt a student engagement strategy that will tremendously impact their brands and businesses now, and for years to come.

We’ve already seen the benefits of this in action. Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, Paragon One and The Opportunity Network (OppNet) partnered to build a pipeline of talented, underrepresented students of color across the country to refine job-ready skills and experiences to boost their employability. Students from OppNet were able to log in remotely to Paragon One’s online platform and complete flexible and educational Remote Externship projects at a range of companies, including Big Tech, finance, and startups.

Roberts, for example, had an externship with Zillow and has since been able to leverage that experience to lock down a product design internship at a different firm this summer. Another student, Howard University alumnus Thomas Heslop, did externships with venture capital firm RallyCry Ventures and Facebook, both hosted by Paragon One. Later, he went on to get hired for an internship where his manager shared that she picked his resume out of a pile because she was impressed by his experiences.

“Because externships are flexible and remote, the students impacted are so diverse,” Heslop says.

“Those who don’t come from top ten schools and who don’t even go to HBCU’s (historically black colleges and universities) where recruiters typically visit, still get the chance to make an impression at their dream company.”

From OppNet’s perspective, they recognized that Remote Externship projects presented flexible opportunities to continue students’ career-building experiences safely during the pandemic, and beyond. “Remote externships are primed to upend the traditional hiring practices that tend to replicate homogeneity and overlook qualified and promising candidates,” Ku says.

The reason that there’s such a need for programs like Remote Externships is because traditional internships are actually failing both companies and students. They’re not accessible to all students, particularly those who don’t go to big schools or have family connections to help them get their foot in the door. And running internships is a heavy lift for companies; managers just don’t have the bandwidth to scale these opportunities to large groups of students. 

Instead, what Paragon One did was give participating companies a scalable way to engage OppNet’s talent of color and assess students for their recruiting pipelines, without overwhelming their teams with the logistics of running the program. 

The defining characteristic that determines an applicant’s success when being considered for a job is their experience.  Students are hungry for — and need — more ways to build career skills and work experiences that count with recruiters, so flexible, bite-sized externships that they can access remotely and all throughout the year are uniquely valuable.

Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders, and companies who engage with them early on, will have a competitive advantage in the long term. In an environment where company’s need to prove, not just say, they have a commitment to building a diverse and inclusive workforce, we hope to see more of Corporate America investing in education and building a diverse workforce from the ground up through initiatives similar to our externship program.