One of the single most important things the human race has done over the course of time is teaching younger generations how to develop and hone a skill. Unlike nearly every other living creature on earth, we humans are born with few instincts, and it takes years before we can be self-reliant. Mentoring, in fact, goes back to the beginning of time with the hunter/gatherers. Starting with masters and apprentices, we have taught the young how to survive and how to thrive.
Today, our young adults must learn the skills of survival in the 21st century. Those skills have changed, and continue to change at a record pace. To thrive, students must learn the skills that are desirable in today’s corporate world, or face the prospect of never gaining financial or social maturity.
In a recent Gallup study, corporations made very clear that we are failing at passing on those skills. Only 11% of business executives agreed that college graduates have the skills their workplaces need. Yet in striking contrast, 96% of chief academic officers at colleges and universities stated their institution was effective at preparing students for employment.
Whether perception, reality, or a combination of the two, this is a huge gap in our understanding of work readiness for college graduates. What can we do to bridge this gap? The answer is surprisingly obvious, but rarely implemented. We need to go back to the roots of the human race. We need experienced practitioners (in technology, accounting, law, journalism, engineering, mathematics, etc.) teaching their hard-learned skills to the next generation. We need the presence of corporations in the classroom. Fortunately, some corporations have chosen to step up to address this gap and we are seeing marked results.
In Teach to Work: How a Mentor, a Mentee, and a Project Can Close the Skills Gap in America, I describe in detail what I call “Project Based Mentoring.” The model stems from Project Based Learning theories, but adds a skilled, corporate mentor to support the student and his assigned project. Through working on a project, two different generations and culturally diverse people, are brought together around something to “do.” The project is based on tackling realistic problems with real-world application.
While the mentor has vast experience in the project dimensions and content, the student is the idea generator, the responsible party, and the driver of the activity and its execution over the course of six to nine months. The mentor is a sounding board, a logistical coach, an overseer who provides soft accountability for a mentee to reach an agreed upon goal. Ultimately the planning and project framework fits within a pre-ordained timeline and concludes with a public oral defense. The project and the relationship mimic workplace assignments and intergenerational work relationships.
This project-based relationship works. Students, often, for the first time, are developing skills that are relevant to an actual career. They are seeing first-hand that strategizing and hard work can yield results. They have a tangible outcome with real world impact to add to their resume. Bonds start to form across a generational divide – as well as between classroom and corporation. These bonds have a profound impact on everyone involved. The older, more experienced mentor starts to help develop ‘character and competence’ in the younger person. An interesting blend of both soft and hard skills are encouraged through role modeling, collaboration, and critical thinking.
But the benefits hardly stop there. The corporation also benefits in many ways. For example, the corporation, through its employee (or retired employee), leaves a lasting impression on students. I have witnessed these impressions first hand. Students no longer associate a company with its commercials or products alone. The company is no longer a thing. It takes on a personality – even a soul. As Chris Gardner, the author of The Pursuit of Happyness, once told me, “you are not only changing the lives of these kids, you are changing the lives of their kids. It is something much deeper than bloodlines. These kids latch on to people they know they can trust, they can look up to, and that are giving them something they are not getting otherwise.”
These mentors become ambassadors of your company’s soul. They become the company’s liaison with tomorrow’s employees and leaders. These mentors are witnessing and conducting what could very well be a turning point in these students’ lives.
I can tell you that these mentors will not be forgotten. These moments are powerful for the students. Years later, your students will still look you up, ask you to lunch, or just show up at a moment when you least expect it. The chances are you will have given them a pivotal moment in their lives and they will remember that forever.
Another benefit to the corporation is the goodwill this relationship generates. These students get excited about their projects. They go home and talk about their experiences with friends and relatives. Teachers and administrators will also notice the positive impact mentors have on the students. Soon, your corporation’s biggest advocates will be the students, teachers, and school administrators who witness this transformative moment. Before long, the school becomes an additional pipeline for resumes and future employees.
Finally, your employee/mentors will develop as leaders and as dedicated employees. They will bond with other fellow employee/mentors at work adding a new dimension to their connections. They will see even more value in the skills that they have learned and passed on to the students. As Susan Warner, vice president of worldwide communications for MasterCard, stated, “Leveraging the unique skill sets of our employees and allowing them to bring their ‘whole self’ to a volunteer experience has proven to be a win–win for all. Employees are proactively seeking mentoring opportunities while mentees are benefiting from our community outreach. Providing a Project Based Mentoring experience is the way to go.”
I sincerely hope that your employees and your corporation take this journey. I am confident it will be one of the best, and most impactful, decisions ever made.
This post originally appeared in thoughtLEADERS, LLC.