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Gallup Podcast
Developing Workforce Talent Among Underserved Students
Gallup Podcast

Developing Workforce Talent Among Underserved Students

What is "Straight to Business"? Larry Kleinman, executive vice president and chief human resources officer for Highmark Health, joins the podcast to discuss a new and innovative pathway to career success. How does this new career pipeline benefit companies and communities alike?

Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.

Mohamed Younis 00:07

I'm Mohamed Younis and this is the Gallup Podcast. In this episode, we explore a new and innovative pathway to career success with the person responsible for managing talent at one of the leading healthcare companies in the world. Larry Kleinman is executive VP and chief of human resources at Highmark Health. Larry, Welcome to the podcast.

Larry Kleinman 00:27
Thank you. Glad to be here.

Mohamed Younis 00:29
You, sir, have decades of experience finding the best talent out of the best schools and the best professional programs in a very competitive -- what has been -- environment for the past several decades. But lately you've taken a completely new and innovative way to find some of the talent your company needs. Tell us about that. It's called "Straight to Business." What is Straight to Business?

Larry Kleinman 00:50
It's a really good question, although I'll go back a step -- "decades and decades," you make me sound like I should be retiring any day now. But all that said, Straight to Business is really, just a really cool, innovative approach that we've done in partnership. And the partnership is with Gallup and with Purdue University Online. And it all started -- it was actually fascinating, it was the last business trip before COVID hit and one of my colleagues or two of my colleagues and I went down to Washington and met with Jim Clifton, John Wood, and we were exploring this concept. And obviously we got distracted for about six months till we got back into it, as everyone might imagine. But that said, we, we were really interested in putting this together, and what "this" is -- Straight to Business -- is, I like to describe it as it's an initiative that's just wrapped in goodness.

Larry Kleinman 01:45
So we basically go to underserved areas and, and we're headquartered in Pittsburgh, so we're doing this in the Pittsburgh area at this stage; we intend to scale it later. But we go to these underserved communities and we approach high school seniors early in the year and we basically start a program where they can come be a part of Highmark Health, and they work for us for four years. They rotate to four different jobs over the four years, so they get a lot of work experience. They have plenty of time to also go and get a degree with Purdue Online. And so at the end of four years, they have four years of work experience, hopefully some money in the bank; they're getting paid well for the jobs they have, and we take care of all their debt -- they have no student loan debt, which, as many people know, is a really big problem, not only in the U.S. but other parts of the world. So that's why I say it's, it's sort of "wrapped in goodness" in a lot of ways.

Mohamed Younis 02:42
Yeah, and the student loan debt thing, man, it gets so many of us, no matter what degree, field. It's just, it's kind of one of those negative equalizers. Let me ask you, though, why did you guys want to do this? I mean, was it more, is it a CSR effort? Is it about finding a different kind of talent for your company? What was the "why" behind some of this?

Larry Kleinman 03:04
Yeah, it was a couple things. I mean, it's a business initiative for us. So we do a lot of what we would call "pipeline programs," whether they're entry level, midlevel, set to senior levels. So we do a lot of these kinds of things. And that's, so that's one. No. 2, and we didn't talk about this as a diversity initiative, although it clearly has that component to it. And three, it's the right thing for the community. You know, we're going to areas where these high school graduating seniors, in many cases, don't have the same opportunities that others do. And so it was the intersection of, you know, doing what's right for the community; getting this figured out so we can scale it; building a pipeline. And so there's, there's a, there's a number of factors to it. Now, we do other pipeline programs. One, one is similar is with our, with graduates, so new college grads. And it's a two-year rotational program. So we've learned how to do some of these things over the last three or four years, but to do it at this level brings a whole different set of challenges. These are, I'm careful not to say "youngsters" anymore. They are younger employees that we have now -- because they started in June -- that just have a different set of circumstances that we have to be completely in tune with. So it's a unique program.

Mohamed Younis 04:13
Of course, in the past year-plus here in the United States, but, you know, in the media maybe, but for all of us, way before, diversity equity and inclusion, as you mentioned, has really become a topic of immense focus in corporate America. I know Highmark Health has done a lot of other DEI efforts. Talk to us more about how this connects to that. Is this a different way to do DEI? Is it kind of part of a larger umbrella? Talk to us about how this connects to those efforts.

Larry Kleinman 04:39
Another good question. So let me go back in time a little bit. We've been doing diversity type efforts since, I don't know, it's about 30 years now. And we actually had a Diversity Committee to board about 27 years ago. So we've been doing a lot of things in this space for quite a long time, and, and quite well actually. As you would imagine, the summer of 2020, every company started reexamining what they were doing. And we did the same thing. We did a series of CEO listening sessions, and we learned a lot about our company -- things that we (when I say "we," the CEO and myself) were not fully aware of, frankly. And so we stepped back and said, "Let's reshape the diversity strategy." And we are, I would say, world-class in disabilities. We are really strong in veterans. We are very, very renowned in LGBTQ areas. So we can go, I can go through other areas, but we, we've done really well. The area that we were not performing at the level we expect was in people of color. Now you can debate why and, you know, part of it's just the places that we are operating in, but the reality is it just wasn't acceptable to us.

Larry Kleinman 05:50
So we said we have to do a series of things. And so this is just one of a series of other pipeline programs. We have a program called "Deal," which is aimed at supervisory level people of color, and that's really specifically content curated to meet their needs that's unique, as they see the world. We have programs, we have, I won't name them all, but we have other programs that we're working through, and there's about four or five major ones, as well as just the entire workforce representation. And our goal overall is really twofold. It's to have a workforce that's much more closely representative of our customers, patients and members. And then secondly, some companies went out and just wrote big checks into a lot of big PR-splash things. We wanted to do something that was in our wheelhouse -- something that we could really affect. And so the second one was infant mortality. Black infant mortality, to be specific. In the area where we're headquartered, there's been reports that have come out, and this area is the second worst in the country. It was important to us to step back and say, "We need to deal with this; this can no longer continue," and so we have a major series of efforts to impact that. So the two big ones are workforce representation, which gets you to pipeline programs, and black infant mortality.

Mohamed Younis 07:06
The other, you know, aspect to diversity that I just love about this project is educational diversity. Right? Like the chance of, in our economy, of you having a great job, whether, you know, you are somebody who feels like, like me -- four-year degrees and colleges have real challenges in preparing people for the workplace. But if you don't have access to that path, your chances of having a great career really are limited dramatically. What you guys are doing is reaching out into the community and creating sort of a bridge for folks that aren't on a track necessarily to go to a four-year school and incur a huge amount of loans. Is that a part of kind of the diversity you are also keeping in mind? Because I think when you look beyond race in the United States, it is one of the most distinguishing factors. I mean, even in our data here in the U.S., Larry, of just thinking about this, one of the most determinative variables in life outcomes are actually whether or not you've completed a four-year degree. So talk to us about diversity kind of from, from that perspective and how that's enriching your efforts.

Larry Kleinman 08:15
Yeah, there's a lot of ways I could, I could respond to that. I think, you know, what I would say is look -- to your point, I have a couple of decades behind me, but I graduated with student debt. And I remember trying to get my first job, and it was not easy. So it was important to us to do this and, and think about how valuable these first 10, our first cohort is 10 people, 10, 10 new employees. And so if we do this the next year and the next year and the next year, so by the end of three or four years, we'll have 40 at a time, fully going through. So we think we can do this at scale and really do something that's much more meaningful. And so what's really -- the other thing that's fascinating about this is these kids are going to be really valuable by the time they graduate with four years of experience and you just got your degree. You know, it will be in, it will be incumbent on us to make sure that we're retaining them, giving them really fulfilling experiences.

Larry Kleinman 09:11
And then the other thing I would say is what makes this also really a unique set of things is the partnerships. So Gallup -- and people, I assume, who are listening know what you're best in the world at, which is assessing talent, and you know, to measure what's going on. And so the partnership with Gallup is really critical, particularly on the front end, because we're going to schools where we're getting extraordinary kids. These are kids that not only are top of the class, but have innate talents that we think are conducive to putting up with a program like this and thriving in it. And they're involved throughout the process as well, because they have a partnership with Purdue. And Purdue has, you know, content that's curated for this kind of cohort as well. And so Gallup has a coach; we have coaches with them; and Purdue has a coach. So we've had to put a lot of reinforcing, I'll call them, mechanisms in place to make this, this work. As I said at the beginning of this, there's a, there's a different set of circumstances. So let me give you some specific, specific examples. They've never set up a bank account. they don't know how to enroll on benefits; they're not sure what benefits are. I mean I can keep going down the list, so just imagine the degree of change for someone who's never been in a, in a work environment, you know, most cases --

Mohamed Younis 10:23
You know, we talk about financial literacy; this is almost like professional literacy, right? Like how do you actually fly, swim in a real job in, in the real corporate world?

Larry Kleinman 10:34
It's, it's a great way to think about it. Now, it's interesting: We had, we set up a nine-week immersion process before they ever did anything, and as a community, which really paid dividends, because they're now a really strong cohort; they rely on each other. We have set up special office space where they all sit together, even though they have different jobs. So we're in the stage right now where they spend three days -- actually next week, they're going to spend three days in the first job rotation and two days in the community. And part of the time they're in that community space is when they're doing academic work. And so it's, it's, it's a unique setup that you have to really have, you know, special programming around.

Mohamed Younis 11:11
Let me ask you -- kind of alluded to this: Is the objective for you guys as an organization, as a company to keep these folks at Highmark or is the, or is it a program that's kind of designed to prepare them and launch them off into the world?

Larry Kleinman 11:26
No, I mean, we'd love to keep them. We think we're going to help create enough stickiness and mutual benefit that, that they want to stay with us. And, you know, we're a $23 billion company with about nine or 10 different companies in our portfolio of businesses. So I like to think of it as, you could have an entire career here -- which I know is contrary to how a lot of people think these days -- but you could have 10 different jobs in your entire career and never leave the company. You know, our goal would be to have them stay. Now, do we believe they'll all stay? Of course not. They're going to get opportunities, and there'll be other things that they may be interested in, but our hope and aspiration is that they stay as long as they're feeling that they're valued and doing good work.

Mohamed Younis 12:05
Let me ask you a really hard question, Larry. There's so many efforts like this out there. You've seen them; you're an expert -- probably one of the top experts on efforts and the programs and the tracks that are out there and what people are trying. Why did you feel like this was an approach that could flourish and really be taken to scale? Why was this kind of the model that appealed to you guys?

Larry Kleinman 12:27
Well, there's a couple of things and, and there's things I've touched on. So we have had a long relationship with Gallup. We do a lot of work with Gallup, and, and Gallup -- you guys, you're the preeminent company in the world in, in, in, in certain areas. And so we felt really confident that you could help us select the right, the right youngsters -- I will say at that point, because at that point, they're not our employees. Right. And so having a really robust process that we could get the right people, these right folks who can come in, because this is not hard. You know, we have many people who work three or four years then go get a, a graduate degree. That's hard doing it at the same time. So we had to make sure we could select the right, the right folks. So things like using assessment processes, being able to understand what clubs do they belong in, what are their social activities. You know, things like that are really important to get the right people on board.

Larry Kleinman 13:21
So that was one. Two is, as I mentioned earlier, we, we have developed some capabilities internally. We're really good at rotating early-in-career people. And there's some things that we learned along the way. The matching process with the right supervisor is essential. So we have a matching process that we've really worked over the last three or four years that we've, we feel comfortable that we can put them in a situation with the right supervisor so they're gonna have a great experience. And the supervisors are going through just as much orientation as these new employees, because they have to be the ones who interpret what's going on in the world. What's interpret -- "This is why we do things the way we do them." "Oh, you have a different idea? Let's talk about that." Because the reality is we're learning as much from them as they're learning from us. And so the matching capabilities that we have were important. And then the third, what's this education academic partner that can really make this work? And so there's relationships that were already in place with Purdue, so that made us comfortable and confident that we could pull all these different capabilities together and bring them to life.

Mohamed Younis 14:28
It's like the business piece and the education piece are coming together; it's not sort of one or the other. Some of the programs I've come across previously are really about like, you know, "College isn't for you." But this is really about developing the capabilities of people that clearly have a lot of potential and a lot of talent. That's Larry Kleinman, executive VP and chief of human resources at Highmark. Larry, thank you so much for making the time to speak with us, and congratulations on this innovative and, and really groundbreaking program.

Larry Kleinman 15:01
Thank you. I appreciate it.

Mohamed Younis 15:10
That's our show. Thank you for tuning in. To subscribe and stay up to date with our latest conversations, just search for the Gallup Podcast wherever you podcast. And for more key findings from Gallup News, go to or follow us on twitter @gallupnews. If you have suggestions for the show, email The Gallup Podcast is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Mohamed Younis and this is Gallup -- reporting on the will of the people since the 1930s.

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