Hiring young people: More trouble or worth it?

Used to be that Tom Nerney's executive team at United States Liability Insurance Group was none too happy with Nerney's plan to keep the girls' high school basketball teams he coached out of trouble by giving them all jobs.

"They were a great group of young ladies and to keep my eye on them, they all worked here," Nerney said during our Leadership Agenda interview published in Monday's Philadelphia Inquirer. "My leadership team at that time didn’t like having a bunch of high school kids working here. It was more work for them."

Thomas P. Nerney

As the girls moved on to college, Nerney gave them summer jobs. And again, he said, the leadership team balked. Too much work. Not enough return on investment.

That has all changed now, said Nerney, chairman, chief executive and president of the Wayne-based company. In fact, more than a decade later, one of those girls is now Nerney's chief-of-staff.

"What has happened is that our mindsets have changed," he said. "The leadership team’s mindset has changed so today, our college help program, we have 110 college students working here right now. It goes up to 140 in the summer. And the demand from my people from the leadership team here is 200."

Why do they want them, I asked.

"These are young people doing phenomenal things," he said. "They do IT work. They do graphics, They do selling, They work in claims. They are dispersed all around."

It doesn't end at graduation.

"In addition to this we have always hired 50 to 60 college graduates a year. Again, going back many many years ago, we’d keep 2 out of 10. They’d come – and that was traditionally, what companies would expect when they hired college students. They would just leave and go to another job. You’d invest in them, but they didn’t know what they wanted. What they wanted to do was go back to school in September, but that was over, and they couldn’t do it.

"Again, we changed our mindset," he said. "So we decided to put together pathways. So I’d hire you and you’d know, if you wanted my job, you knew you had to matriculate from what we have called People’s College, which is our [in-house] university.

"We had 16 to 18 career tracks.  So what we do, as you come in an entry point, you begin taking courses, you begin putting sweat equity in, you begin making choices as to potential career paths.

"Now, we have 100 percent retention. It is unbelievable. Between the ages of 30 and 35, I probably have 185 young people who have been with me for  10 to 15 years. So what I do on the weekend is make up is make up stuff so I can give them opportunities because there is so much talent that they have."

One of the opportunities is a leadership seminar that Nerney convenes for newer hires. "It helps me learn how they see things, how they hear things, how they understand our culture. It helps fuels things. I’ve just been amazed at how much talent there is," he said. "I just make up opportunities to interact. I really can’t interact operationally, because then I’m impeding on the leadership."

Nerney's interest in fostering young people starts at an even earlier age. He runs a charity called A Front Row Seat to Learning. "We scholarship young underprivileged kids to go to private high schools," he said.

Click here to read his op-ed piece published in the Philadelphia Inquirer.