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The Old Made New Again

New Ideas for Closing the Skills Gap

One of the single most important things the human race has done over the course of time is teach 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.

History provides important examples in every fruitful field of endeavor, whereby transformative learning involves mentoring relationships: Socrates mentored Plato, Freud mentored Jung, Lorenzo de’ Medici mentored Michelangelo, Haydn mentored Beethoven, Hammerstein mentored Sondheim, Miles Davis mentored John Coltrane, Steven Spielberg mentored Kathleen Kennedy, James Taylor mentored Carole King.

Today, our young adults must still learn the skills of survival, however, the 21st century climate has changed the paradigm. Moreover, necessary skills continue to change at record pace. To thrive in today’s corporate climate, students must learn to anticipate change, be constant learners, and adapt their skills, or face the inevitable prospect of never gaining financial or social maturity.

As a Human Race, We Are Failing

In a recent Gallup study, corporations made very clear that we, the human race, are failing at passing – on the necessary skills to our next generation. When chief academic officers at colleges and universities were asked if their institution was effective at preparing students for employment, 98% stated that they were. Yet when business executives were asked if those same college graduates had the skills their workplaces needed, only 11% of the executives agreed.

This finding is consistent with General Electric’s Global Innovation Barometer, in which over 3,000 corporations from 25 countries identified their top business concern as “a need to better align the education system with business needs.” 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.

Seasoned Professional: Meet Aspiring Student

When I began to research and draft my book, Teach to Work: How a Mentor, a Mentee, and a Project Can Close the Skills Gap in America, I closely studied mentorship programs around the country. I reflected on the two decades I spent working directly with youth, and I reviewed the mentorship model I created for the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). More recently, I joined the board of US2020, the White House initiative to build mentorship in STEM careers, and was appointed to the corporate committee for Million Women Mentors

Through all of these experiences, I have found one thing to be true: when corporate mentors are introduced to a classroom environment, and mentor and mentee are given a project to do together, something special happens. For the first time, students begin to connect the dots between what they are learning in textbooks and what they will be expected to know in the real world. They witness first-hand through this special, intergenerational relationship that strategizing and hard work can yield results. Students begin to associate a tangible outcome with real-world impact. And bonds start to form across a generational divide – as well as between classroom and corporation.

Project Based Mentorship™ is Born, and a Spark of Inspiration is Generated

This model, which I named Project Based Mentorship™ and describe in depth in my book, stems from project-based learning theories, but adds a skilled, corporate mentor to support the student and his assigned project. Through working on this project, two different generations and culturally diverse people are brought together for a common goal. 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. Most importantly, each student completes an accomplishment, takes ownership, builds confidence, and includes this experience of innovation in a college essay or a job resume.

As potential mentors, over the course of our careers, we have each developed a unique and valuable set of skills, understandings, and experiences that have shaped who we are and our personal stories. When we share these stories, we sometimes don’t appreciate the ripple effect we set in motion. We also don’t appreciate how that sharing can change us in dramatic ways internally, and professionally.

We can and do motivate others with our tales of obstacles overcome, resilience from loss, or strategy over fear. That is why mentorship can be the greatest opportunity we have to allow us as professionals to find new meaning in giving.

So, I ask you, who is better prepared to pave this road to closing the skills gap than the employers themselves? A new mentoring partnership between the learners and the doers, the academic sector and the business sector could very well be the missing link between the graduates of today and their employment of tomorrow. How funny, this answer was under our noses the whole time.
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