High school students take on real business challenges through LAUNCH program

Students in the LAUNCH program work on real-world business projects and meet with clients in Concurrency’s office in Brookfield.
Students in the LAUNCH program work on real-world business projects and meet with clients in Concurrency’s office in Brookfield.

Last updated on March 17th, 2020 at 01:38 pm

Before Maggie Conlon entered her senior year of high school, she had already solved business challenges for three area employers: Milwaukee Tool, the Medical College of Wisconsin and Prestwick Golf Group.

Conlon, a student at Brookfield Central High School, had the opportunity to work with those organizations through LAUNCH, a program that immerses area high school juniors and seniors in corporate settings during part of their school day. The goal is to help students better discern their future career path, build their employability skills and help produce a talent pipeline for the region.

Dozens of companies – including Direct Supply, Harley-Davidson, Johnson Controls, Milwaukee Tool, ProHealth Care, Siemens and others – participate in the program, presenting students with their real-world business challenges that students, in turn, attempt to solve.

Given the region’s workforce shortages and sluggish population growth, a proactive approach is needed to develop and retain talent, which means exposing students as early as high school, or even before, to potential professional opportunities.

“We hear from our private sector and nonprofit employers that the inevitable people crunch is upon us in many industries or will be upon us,” said Mark Hansen, superintendent of Elmbrook School District. “If we don’t find a way to rapidly accelerate our workforce development in our region, we could have a stagnant regional economy. As we started out on this journey it was really about creating passionate opportunities to make learning irresistible (to students) and it’s evolved into a mutually beneficial partnership between K-12 and future employers.”

LAUNCH is available to students at four high schools, including those in the Elmbrook and Wauwatosa districts. This year, about 350 students are enrolled in the program.

Students are offered the option to pursue one of several career interests – called “strands” – including global business, business analytics, media solutions, IT foundations, medicine and health care, biomedical solutions and others.

Conlon participated in the business analytics strand last year. Her first assignment was a two-month project in which she and a team of classmates had to develop a model through Microsoft Excel to prevent overspending among different Medical College of Wisconsin departments.

Her second project was with Milwaukee Tool, which tasked students with coming up with an alternative to the company’s standard protocol of selling returned tools to third-party liquidators. Her group’s solution was to create a tool rental program, in which safe, returned tools could be rented out to customers.

Conlon’s group presented their solution to Milwaukee Tool employees through a company innovation challenge and were named the winners.

“It was neat because we knew our idea could actually help the company in the future,” Conlon said.

One of LAUNCH’s business strands exposes students to the hospitality industry.
One of LAUNCH’s business strands exposes students to the hospitality industry.

Part of what sets LAUNCH apart is that participating businesses – rather than school curriculum – determine students’ projects, LAUNCH executive director Robert Hall said.

“(Businesses’) projects aren’t necessarily designed to meet our needs,” Hall said. “Their projects are designed to meet their needs. We’re not asking them to fit it into a curriculum. We’ve developed a curriculum to take any problem, solve it and that’s embedded into our work.”

While there has been a significant push in K-12 in recent years to encourage students into manufacturing, engineering and other STEM-oriented careers, LAUNCH is designed to make exposure to that experience more engaging for students.

“When you look at a typical career in manufacturing 10 years ago, you’d go through Advanced Manufacturing 1, Advanced Manufacturing 2 (classes) and youth apprentice, but that approach isn’t making anyone happy,” Hall said. “But if we can expose 20 kids to a problem at a manufacturing company with data, artificial intelligence and work with their leads on that … When our kids are measuring the effectiveness and efficiency of collaborative robots, that’s going to get them more excited about manufacturing than possibly a more traditional approach.”

With concerns about Wisconsin being a “brain drain” state, LAUNCH leaders noted the program provides an important opportunity for young people to become familiar with the major brands based in southeastern Wisconsin.

Students pitched their business solution to Milwaukee Tool employees as part of the LAUNCH program.
Students pitched their business solution to Milwaukee Tool employees as part of the LAUNCH program.

“Our kids go to Duke, our kids go to Stanford, our kids go to (University of California, Berkeley), they go to Alabama, they’re pretty mobile,” Hansen said. “But when they go, they know they have a place to come back to because they’ve built relationships with the Manpowers, they know what Northwestern Mutual is all about, they have meaningful relationships with Milwaukee Tool because they’ve worked on some projects through LAUNCH. So we want to build a program that allows a meaningful relationship to be established so that when students finish their school, they know they can come home because there’s an awesome employer they have a relationship with.”

Among the participating businesses is Concurrency, Inc., a Brookfield-based software and professional services company. The company first connected with LAUNCH when its chief people officer, Kate Weiland, heard about the program through her daughter, a student at Brookfield Central High School.

“Immediately, she thought this was in our wheelhouse,” said Jim Savage, founder and president of Concurrency. “It just seemed symbiotic, complementary and had potential for us.”

Recently, the LAUNCH program opened its new office on the second floor of Concurrency’s office in Bishop Woods Office Park. The second-floor space includes offices and open areas for students to collaborate and meet with their professional clients.

“In order to feel like you’re being treated as a professional you have to be in a professional setting,” Conlon said. “It’s nice to not be in a classroom all day … it’s also nice when we meet with clients because we have a professional office to use.”

Not only does the space place students in a real-world professional environment, Savage said, it also is a benefit to Concurrency employees.

“It’s fun to see the kids coming in and out of here; it adds an energy and zest that we really enjoy,” he said.

Savage said he’s been “blown away” by the projects that students are taking on. He sees the potential in capitalizing on students’ potential while they’re still in high school.

“These are the young unfettered minds of this new technology generation,” he said. “These kids are accustomed to four different major social media platforms and the subtle variations of them. Someone from my generation will never understand the differences and implications of those differences. I would highly recommend (other businesses) participate.”

LAUNCH leaders envision more school districts signing on to the program so that it becomes a single point of contact for area businesses that are looking to connect with the K-12 sector.

For Conlon, now a senior in LAUNCH’s media solutions strand, participating in LAUNCH means having ready-made references when she applies for her first internship as a college student.

“It’s incredible that I can say I’ve worked with three well-known companies before I even went into my senior year,” she said. “Including that on my resume will definitely give me a step up.”

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Lauren Anderson
Lauren Anderson covers health care, nonprofits, education and insurance for BizTimes. Lauren previously reported on education for the Waukesha Freeman. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied journalism, history and African studies. In her free time, Lauren enjoys spending time with family and friends and seeing live music wherever she can.