Making the rounds these days among my appalled colleagues is a photo of a pretty little girl, around 9, looking tragically earnest as she stands in what looks like a school pep-rally crowd. As she might in any other pep rally, she’s holding a sign hand-lettered in big bubble letters. But the sign does not say, “Go Cougars!” It says, “No One is Free if Someone Is Oppreessed” [sic, by the way].
I’m not sure she knew what the sign meant. Heck, I’m not sure I know what the sign meant. But she is clearly too young to be worried about such things. She is the one who is oppressed by the overburden of global concerns — imposed by an equally tragically earnest adult, no doubt. A girl that age shouldn’t be expected to be able to spell “oppressed,” primarily because oppression shouldn’t be in her lesson plans. Not yet.
These children are being taught to be citoyens du monde, worried about global warming and human rights in Myanmar, and crying themselves to sleep at night when they think of the trees that died to make their little wooden beds (true story). They might be able to find Myanmar on a map. But can they name your town’s most powerful employers and find them on a map? Probably not.
And if they do know who your town’s most employers are, dollars to doughnuts it’s because there has been some discussion within their earshot (teacher, parent, older sibling) about how the company oppresses its workers.
Assuming their parents still have jobs, the latest personal tragedy of many children’s lives is the disappearance of Twinkies (in my particular case, I grieve the Sno Balls). What are they being told about what happened to Hostess? That a relative few unionized employees refused to back down and resulted in the abrupt unemployment of 18,500 individuals ahead of Christmas? Or that it’s a greedy company’s intransigence about worker rights? It depends on who is getting to them first.
We’re still in the knowledge economy, and the side that fills our youngest generations heads the most and the soonest will win the future. When you cast your imagination forward 15 years or so, what kind of pipeline of talent do you imagine will be ready and eager to help make your business a success?
You can start preparing those kids now with not only the skills and attitudes they need to be happy, successful individuals, but also the basic philosophical foundations that will create cheerleaders of free enterprise.
Any company can play a part in shaping the future generations in its community, regardless of its size, offerings or marketplace. Old-fashioned traditions such as sponsoring neighborhood kids’ softball games might provide a greater return on your investment, even though it might mean that one village in a distant country doesn’t get a well this year. That’s really too bad, but you need a generation of future employees in the pipeline who will be excited to come work for you very soon. And they’ll be able to help even more villages get those wells.
Develop a relationship with local schools and the teachers who will provide the kinds of education your future candidates will need. Sponsor contests (it doesn’t have to be engineering; try spelling). Endow a section of the school newspaper so that future reporters might be somewhat positively inclined toward the fundamentals of capitalism as they do their Woodward/Bernstein thing.
Create summer sabbaticals for teachers to work at your company so they can update their skills and see what wonders might be in store for their well-prepared students once they’re ready to come work for you.
Meet your young neighbors where they are in their hearts. Thinking back on our tragic little miss, my guess is that her mind might crack open just a little bit in your favor if you could help her see how your company makes the world a better place for your customers. Whether you make medical devices, computer software, great coffee or crème-injected cakes, your business does something that helps put a smile on your customer’s face. Find a way to tell that story at age-appropriate levels.
Time is still on your side. But you’re up against individuals who have other plans for the attitudes of your future employees. And they’re also using this time well.
What are you going to do about it?