The term “networking” might conjure images of awkward social events rife with bland appetizers and stunted conversations, but that’s an old-school view educators should chuck, experts say.
Instead, networking is about relationships and relationship-building — and teaching that concept doesn’t have to be boring.
For starters, rather than “networking,” the best terms to use are “professional relationship building skills,” or simply, “relationship building skills,” said Sean O’Keefe, founder and partner at Career Launch, which works with higher ed institutions, high schools, non-profit organizations and government agencies to help expand job and internship pathways for students.
In fact, educators can help students identify the relationships they already have and expand their network of relationships, or “social capital,” so they can access and build professional pathways to launch into successful careers, said O’Keefe.
Additionally, students should be encouraged to think not in terms of meeting new people, but having different types of conversations with people they already know, said Julia Freeland Fisher, education director for the Clayton Christensen Institute, which created a playbook for building and strengthening students’ networks.
Half of all internships and jobs come through networking and connections, and students’ access to those varies greatly based on where they grow up and their parents’ level of education, Freeland Fisher pointed out.
Educators, however, can help students build their relationship networks and address opportunity gaps with the following five tactics.
All students have “social capital” and can leverage that for career exploration, internships or job searches, O’Keefe said.
Career Launch works with more than 100 school districts across the country and uses an eight-step framework that emphasizes “relationship mapping,” or identifying all the people with whom students have ties, O’Keefe said.
Those ties can be strong, weak or loose, and they include all kinds of people: near and extended family, church members, mentors, friends’ parents, community members and much more. Loose ties can include people with interesting jobs, who students may have never met but heard about from their connections, O’Keefe said.
The idea is to “make the invisible visible,” Freeland Fisher said. “It’s a very practical way to teach students you are already a member of a social network across different domains and categories.”
Career Launch’s framework asks students to select five people in their network who they identify as positive influences, O’Keefe said. Students then work on setting up a conversation or video chat with one of those people for a general discussion about career and career readiness. They wrap up by asking that person if they know anyone in their desired industry or career path, he said.
“We tell students the answer is most likely going to be ‘no,’ but if you ask enough times, you’re going to find someone who says yes,” O’Keefe said.
Teach practical steps
Teachers should help students prepare for and successfully carry out their career exploration in a professional manner, O’Keefe said.
Teachers can give advice, show videos of mock career conversations, and help students practice in class, he said.
Students also need to learn skills like personalizing emails, writing subject lines, and sending calendar invites for video chats, O’Keefe said. They also should know how to follow up, such as sending a “thank you” email within 24 hours, or a handwritten note if a work address is available, he said.
Traditionally, teachers see their role as forming deep relationships with students, but a key component of their jobs should also be helping students expand their network of relationships, said Tyler Thigpen, co-founder and head of schools for The Forest Schools and co-founder and executive director of the Institute For Self Directed Learning.
“Inevitably, in any school, you have a set of learners who don’t have social capital, and neither do their parents,” he said.
In that case, teachers and administrators have a responsibility to use their own social capital to help students connect with mentors and professional adults, and, in turn, to increase the students’ social capital, he said. Schools should make that a priority by having focused weekly meetings and allocating time and resources, Thigpen said.
Freeland Fisher said educators, particularly in high school, should broaden their vision of family engagement by tapping into the school’s parent network. “Schools typically put a lot of resources into employer partnerships, and that is great, but rarely have they started with their families and what their families do for a living,” she said.
Students also find connections with and advice of near-peers, such as those who just finished an internship or started their first job, especially valuable, she added.
Begin before high school
Teaching about networking and social capital is typically included in career and technical education , electives or internship classes, but the best approach is to incorporate that into general core subjects, O’Keefe said.
It’s especially helpful to tackle the subject in 8th grade, so by the time students reach high school, they can make more informed decisions about things like CTE pathways, he said.
Additionally, educators should emphasize that young people can build trusting and reciprocal relationships not just with people of their age, but also adults, Freeland Fisher added.
Educators can also help students process any negative interaction they may experience during their work on relationship building, such as unreturned emails or unpleasant conversations, Freeland Fisher said. When that happens, students should debrief with a trusting adult, such as a teacher or guidance counselor.
“What we know from the mentoring world is that a bad relationship is worse than no relationship at all, because it can harm students’ sense of self-efficacy in the long term,” Freeland Fisher said.
Tap online resources
Educators can use virtual tools to connect students with adult professionals, explore career pathways and increase their social capital, Freeland Fisher said.
“I definitely see a lot of potential in the online world, particularly to diversify students’ weak tie network,” she said. “Research shows that weak ties are a kind of ‘special sauce’ for making career connections.”
Resources Freeland Fisher pointed to include:
Pathful Connect (formerly Nepris), which matches teachers and students with industry professionals.
CareerSpring, which has a career video library, an advisor forum and job placement services.
Connected Futures, a curriculum designed to help students form meaningful connections with adults.
nXu, which helps students define personal and professional pathways.
Social Capital Builders, a Black-owned and operated enterprise with a mission to raise the social capital literacy and connections of one million youths and adults by 2025.
However, Freeland Fisher also cautioned that technology cannot fully replace the value of face-to-face interactions, which are particularly critical for young children.