Harnessing social media to guide teens to in-demand careers

A new Austin-based nonprofit is helping young people figure out their future goals

Passion and purpose. That’s the idea behind a new nonprofit in Austin that harnesses the power of marketing to get mid-to-late teens thinking about their future careers.

“I think it’s important to enlighten young people while they are in high school. Not wait until they are out and don’t know what to do,” says Roy Spence, co-founder of GSD&M, an advertising agency, and the catalyst behind the nonprofit campaign Make It Movement.

“There’s a whole new world. I don’t call them ‘jobs’ anymore. A whole new world of ‘careers.’ You can make a great living in life doing what you like to do, not just what you’re supposed to do.”

Finding His Own Way

For half a century, Spence and college friends-turned-business partners grew the Texas agency and worked on massive ad campaigns. But Spence didn’t always know that would be his path.

Originally from Brownwood, Texas, Spence worked as a roofer, in a warehouse, and construction as a young man. In high school, a teacher recognized he had a talent for writing and his mother lit the spark.

“She told me, ‘I don’t want you to spend another second of your life trying to become average at what you’re bad at. I want you to spend the rest of your life becoming great at what you’re good at,’” Spence recalls.

Nonprofit Helps Young People Find Their Spark

His mom’s advice has now led Spence to found the Make It Movement. The nonprofit leverages marketing—something Spence is “great at”—as a way to help high schoolers or those who didn’t finish high school discover their passion and purpose.

“The data is clear. If we don’t give young kids hope and confidence while in high school, we’re not moving the needle on those who drop out or those who graduate and go to college and drop out. Why not reach when they’re young, beforehand?” Spence says.

The Make It Movement brings together other nonprofits, community colleges, and workforce development organizations to accomplish this mission. Among the initial partners are Austin Community College District and United Way.

A Digital Reach

The Make It Movement uses digital marketing to encourage young people in the Austin area to visit its website and take what Spence describes as “fun quizzes” about their interests and preferences. Their responses result in career suggestions and links to partners that can help with pathways.

For example:

  • Do you want to start planning your career? – with a link to a community college.
  • Do you need a job right now? – with a link to Austin Workforce Solutions.
  • Are you interested in (career) mentoring? – with a link to a resource.

“We’re using marketing to enlighten the options, not to make the decisions for them,” Spence says.

Options can provide students with information they may not have previously had to help find careers that pay $75,000 as an electrician or in manufacturing that can pay $90,000, as examples. And while these careers don’t require a four-year degree, Spence abhors calling these choices “alternatives” to college.

“My word is higher learning, not higher education. Whether that’s an apprenticeship, community college, four years of college, there’s one path: get inspired about what you want to do,” he says. “And you can choose but if you don’t know what’s out there, how can you choose?”

When the site launched in the fall of last year, Spence says 25,000 people visited. School counselors and teachers love it, he says. He adds, while students may be interested in their futures, they don’t know what questions to ask. The quizzes do the work for them.

“We’re job rich, and this is not like going into an economy where there are no jobs. This is a benefit of the Make It Movement,” Spence says. “Jobs are looking for people. You’ve got to work hard and continue a lifetime of learning. If you love what you do, you want to learn more. If you learn more, you earn more.”

The job and career industries students are exposed to are broad: electricians, solar/renewable energy, truck driving, nursing, and more. The goal is to see how well the site works in Austin and build a national alliance.

“The bottom line is if we did our job right, we want high school students and also those kids who are looking for a new beginning all over America, in every zip code. That’s why we’re using digital marketing to reach everyone,” Spence says. “Our goal is to make people think. There are so many ways you can make it in America. Go for it.”