Universities are increasingly supporting students through mentoring and technology, helping them gear up for employment and encouraging diversity in the workplace, reports Sophie Hurst
Young people entering the world of work today have different expectations than earlier entrants. They are more used to technology and multitasking and they want interaction.
Yet some things haven’t changed. Many Generation Y students and graduates are just as unsure of their career direction and/or ill-prepared for working as I was when I first left university. However, a sea change is underway.
Increasingly, forward-thinking universities and professional bodies are using innovative support schemes featuring mentoring and technology, not only to prepare students for the workplace, but also to help businesses improve the way they engage with today’s graduate workforce.
Innovations in student and career mentoring
More and more universities are adding mentoring schemes to their programmes. The types of programmes we come across are:
- Widening participation university schemes
These aim to encourage students who wouldn’t normally consider university, to apply. Cambridge University Student Union (CUSU) for example, has mentoring schemes for sixth-formers, whereby they connect with a student mentor, who helps them understand how life would be at Cambridge.
- Alumni or career mentoring
This involves connecting final year and MBA students with mentors who can help educate the student on their industry, giving career guidance and interview practice, as well as providing access to industry networks. Both Edinburgh Napier University and Oxford Brookes University successfully run these kinds of schemes, linking students with mentors through their alumni network and business partnerships.
- Widening participation and career mentoring into professions
A scheme run by the Bar Council aims to increase the number of barristers from less traditional backgrounds. The scheme links college/sixth-form or first-year university students with barristers for advice and guidance on becoming a barrister.
Nick Dennis-Cooke is a former student of Edinburgh Napier University and now a fraud risk consultant. He was mentored at university and now does the same for other students. He says, “The real benefit of being mentored was confidence. I had a mentor from a major high street bank and discussed various options that might be available in the finance industry.”
He says that when he was applying for internships in finance and accountancy firms, his mentor arranged a ‘mock’ interview, giving him feedback on the spot. “So when it came to the real interview, I was less nervous – and got the internship.”
The benefits of mentoring students are: “First, I get to give something back and help people learn from my experience. Second, this has given me development opportunities in coaching other people. I learn leadership skills, such as encouraging and coaching people, rather than doing it for them, giving constructive feedback and helping them understand the different routes available to entering work.”
The benefit to business
These mentoring programmes support students, give them confidence and are widening the types of people that go to university – and ultimately, providing business and the professions with a better representation of society. They are also helping students to be better prepared for the world of work, which can only benefit employers.
Employers who are involved as mentors in these schemes benefit from:
1) Best talent acquisition for undergraduates:
They have access to students, can spot talent and use this knowledge as part of their recruitment programmes.
It provides them with access to potential candidates for summer projects and can lead to internships and employment placements.
2) Improvement in businesses’ internal mentoring/coaching programmes:
A business involved in the mentoring process can take the opportunity to see what is working for the mentees themselves and improve their own training for new employees.
3) Good brand representation:
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is important for business and it’s good to be involved with the community.
Uses of technology
Many mentoring schemes struggle to get off the ground or grow because the administrative time needed is too burdensome and resources are low. For others, they need students to be able to communicate securely without divulging email addresses and telephone numbers.
This is where technology can help. Judie Gannon, senior lecturer in human resource management (coaching and mentoring) in the Faculty of Business at Oxford Brookes University says, “Technology has given us the flexibility to grow the programme. In our first year, we had 44 mentors and 100 students. Now we have 160 mentors and 200 students. It was simply getting too difficult to grow without technology.”
Online mentoring systems provide a platform which is secure and where mentors and mentees can upload a profile, communicate securely with one another, share files and more. The administrators can run reports, send communications to everyone securely, match mentors and mentees and let them carry on communicating with one another. The benefits to universities – or other groups and businesses for that matter – are many.
- Ease of communication
Students of today have been immersed in a digital world since day one; for them it’s normal and a part of life. With this in mind, CUSU uses sfG MentorNet, a secure online mentoring system for face-to-face and eMentoring programmes, as part of The Shadowing Scheme, its main widening participation project. The fact that students can communicate securely with one another, without sharing emails and mobile phone numbers, allows the scheme they run to happen.
Hannah Sketchley, representation and campaigns co-ordinator at CUSU comments, “sfG MentorNet is easy to use, as it provides a familiar interface for mentors and mentees. The mentees are under 18 and so it is important that their personal information is not shared. They can connect with their student mentor prior to arriving at Cambridge, and keep in secure contact while they are here.
“Without this kind of solution, there would be no way for them to connect in the first place – as it would not be secure enough. Connections of this kind, along with secure online forums in the software, help create the sense of connection and community, so that the prospective students feel welcome and able to apply to Cambridge.”
Onyeka Onyekwelu, policy analyst: equality and diversity, legal affairs, practice and ethics at the Bar Council, says this was particularly beneficial. “For the Bar Council, sfG MentorNet provides a secure communication platform, with an interface that young people will find familiar. They are used to using social media and their phones in everyday communication, and the fact that mentoring is available on such a platform makes them much more likely to join and continue with the scheme. The anonymity and security of mentors and mentees as part of this was also paramount.”
Jo Haddrick, employer mentoring coordinator at Edinburgh Napier University, says, “An additional advantage in Skype, messaging and email interactions, is that students start communicating with senior levels in business and have to learn how to communicate with them professionally – in writing.”
- Facilitates running of the schemes
For many universities, such as Edinburgh Napier and one of Oxford Brookes’ programmes, resources can be a limiting factor when expanding programmes. People running schemes are already busy doing lots of other things.
For Haddrick, an online mentoring platform can help reduce the time spent on administrative tasks. Manual tasks such as sending emails, pulling reports or connecting people is so much easier and quicker. And administrators can access key metrics and run surveys to justify their schemes.
- Broadening the geographical spread of mentors
In career mentoring, where the alumni could be abroad, the mentoring can still take place via the eMentoring platform, so it widens the opportunity for both mentors and mentees. Software helps ensure everyone is secure, while still enabling remote contact – as well as face to face if someone is local.
In summary, there is a great opportunity for pupils, students, business and the professional bodies:
- More universities are running mentoring schemes and linking students with business – as well as opening up opportunities for those that would not normally come into university and the professions.
- Technology can ensure that these schemes are feasible, run smoothly and can make the mentoring environment and communications more familiar for millennials and their mentors.
- Businesses and professional bodies can be involved in mentoring schemes, which is good for the brand, helps them recruit the right people and ensures a wider representation of society. And in some forward-thinking businesses, some of those students may also bring their own experiences to the table and mentor their seniors about the digital world, what is going on at grass roots level and bring it all full circle, with what is called ‘Reverse Mentoring’.
It’s a great opportunity all round for everyone to share their life experiences with others, and help each other into more fulfilling careers.
- Sophie Hurst is marketing director of sfG MentorNet