Stop blaming secondary education for the Gen Y skills gap and take charge of the problem with these mentoring techniques.
January 30, 2015
It’s becoming a familiar story. Companies are often not hiring millennials because they often lack necessary skills, such as the ability to write, interpreting and analyzing data, negotiating and managing time. Yet, colleges are not preparing students for the harsh realities of these attitudes.
What’s the solution? Rose Ernst, one of the country’s top advocates for young professionals, believes corporations must have training and mentoring programs — either internally or externally — to teach recent grads the skills they are not learning in college. Ernst works with recent graduates to get them ready and also works with corporations as they look to engage with the next generation. She’s the national delivery director of G10 Associates for Genesis10, a national staffing firm based in New York City. The G10 Associates program recruits, trains and mentors recent college graduates so they can better contribute to their jobs from day one. Below are excerpts of my interview with Ernst.
We know there’s a disconnect when it comes to jobs and skills. Millennials don’t have some of the skills recruiters are looking for, and if millennials are hired without those skills, it poses a problem. How can mentoring help bridge that gap?
Ernst: The skills gap for millennials has two parts; one is the mismatch of available skills for the available work. Supply and demand are not aligning. We see this in the amount of malemployment that is happening in the job market. We have too many graduates in the wrong majors. The other part, to which this commentary relates, is the lack of certain soft skills across the spectrum of majors. There is a definite gap between the soft skills that most college graduates have coming out of their four year degree programs, and those that their potential employers would like them to have coming into a job. The result is unwillingness on the part of many employers to hire them. They foresee such a hurdle in developing these new graduates into the talent they need, that many don’t bother. And with a healthy supply of older more experienced workers still in the job market, employers have not necessarily needed the millennials. Until now.
In order to understand how mentoring can overcome the skills gap, it helps to look at what is most often cited as missing. In a recent Chegg study on this topic, only 39 percent of hiring managers felt that graduates coming into the workforce possessed the necessary skills to be successful in their jobs. They ranked the following seven areas as being at less than half the competency level required in recent college graduates:
- Managing a meeting
- Making a decision without all the facts
- Public speaking (presentation skills)
- Managing a project and identifying key steps, resources and timelines
- Incorporating information to develop strategic insights
- Writing to communicate ideas or explain information clearly
- Budgeting and preparing financial goals
Most of these skills are what we would call ‘soft skills’ and they do not fully develop without practical application, which means doing the job. And, of course, receiving prompt and honest feedback on their performance. But even this is not enough; most graduates do not necessarily know how to correct their performance in that area based on feedback alone. This is where mentoring helps to get graduates across the divide. The mentor ensures that the graduate knows what to do with the experience and feedback.
How? A good mentor provides a safe zone, allowing both intellectual and emotional reactions to be expressed, and then providing the recent graduate with suggestions for a different approach to the task, recommended reading and training to help them gain more insight into effective techniques, as well as observations on the more personal factors which may be playing a part in the graduate’s struggle to master the task at hand. A mentor is not a trainer, nor a direct supervisor. Rather, a mentor is someone who gets to know the graduate, both in terms of specific qualifications and more holistically, understanding their aspirations, what motivates them and where they may have beliefs or other outside factors limiting their ability to perform. The mentor also understands the type of work they are doing and the culture within which they work and is able to provide the graduate with the tactics to achieve the mastery they seek.
How does technology fit into this?
Ernst: One thing we hear consistently about the millennial generation, who are the bulk of new employees entering the workforce now, is that they are accustomed to quick responses, and both the feedback and the corrective action need to be equally quick. A recent article in Scientific American discussed the impact of technology on our ability to recall information. One outcome of this, which I see constantly in my own mentoring work, is that after a few days, a new worker’s recall of exactly what they did or didn’t do in the execution of that task is already diminishing. Immediate feedback coupled with timely mentoring and connection to materials, which help the graduate research and learn, are critical success factors in the development of those missing skills. Technology supports this in a couple of ways.
Depending on the location of the mentor — and the manager (not all graduates co-locate with their manager or their mentor these days) — technology supports prompt communication. Whether it is an email, a text or a phone call, immediate feedback can be made available. The second thing that technology provides is the right kind of learning at the right time. Millennials have a stronger preference for using social learning (e.g., social networks, wikis, and blogs) and mobile development (e.g., smartphones or tablets) than other generations, and they tend to learn from others more frequently. Access to learning materials on demand, and a learning community which whom to engage and discuss, is a necessity in the early stages of a graduate’s development. The mentoring process coupled with these technology tools connects the dots in a ‘just in time’ manner, ensuring a higher likelihood of the graduate resolving the gap.
How does mentoring to develop these skills fit into millennials’ greater development plan?
Ernst: Multiples sources validate the significant role mentoring plays in career development, particularly in growing new leaders. In a recent survey by Virtuali and New Leadership Council on engaging millennials for leadership development, the type of ‘leadership training,’ which was rated most impactful by working millennials, was career coaching or mentorship. This was also their most desired type of training. Millennials are well known for wanting the fast track to leadership and for their ability to become impatient for that upward mobility if they don’t perceive the opportunity as imminent. After all, having spent most of their lives being groomed for greatness, along with four years’ of college study and an average of $30,000 in student loans, the average millennial expects to rise quickly. If this is not happening and there is no mentoring or leadership coaching being given to help them a) feel that the investment is being made to get them there and/or b) to understand what stands in the way of that promotion, they are far more likely to stop investing in your company and leave for another who will provide this valuable development. The end result: The development plan has failed, at least for your company.
Millennials are the most educated generation in history, so why the gap to begin with? Is this something other generations experienced?
Ernst: Some skills can only be learning by doing and reviewing the results. They are skills that require judgment, or require application of theoretical models to real life situations that may or may not be ideal for the use of that model. Looking at the list of skills employers felt were lacking in the previously cited Chegg study, one might conclude that this is a failure on the part of the tertiary education system to properly educate graduates. One of the skills competencies listed as a gap in this study was “budgeting and preparing financial goals.” It would seem reasonable to assert that this skill could be taught to Finance and Business students, for example. Yet, in that Chegg study, researchers found that while students coming out of STEM programs scored better on average than their non-STEM equivalents, all scores were still rated as being well below the desired level of competency by employers.
It is my belief that the universities are not equipped to provide graduates with these competencies because mastery requires practice and a real world setting in which to do so. For example, graduates may be (and are, in some degree programs) educated in the theory of good communication, given assignments to write papers, and to present research and recommendations, but until such time as they are in the corporate environment applying the knowledge, there is no guarantee that they will learn what works and what does not work in that environment. Corporations have cultures just as countries do, and I would argue that just like learning what is and isn’t acceptable in one world culture vs. another requires immersion, so do many of the soft skills required to succeed in corporate America.
And this is nothing new. One notable change in corporations the world over in the past decade is the current absence of the formal training and development program, and it is no coincidence that many of the larger companies who are being hit the hardest by the current skills shortages are investing heavily to reinstate these programs today. It would have been unheard of for a recent graduate in the pre-millennial era to be onboarded to an organization without significant additional orientation, shadowing of other more experienced resources and careful ramp up into independent work. Initial outputs produced by the individual would have been checked over by more senior staff and any issues worked through together until the desired quality of work product was achieved. Don’t blame the millennial, or the education system for this gap; corporations have been trying to get along without this important function, and for a period of time, they did alright, because there were not significant intakes of younger workers. As growth picks up (finally) and the baby boomers are replaced by the ‘new boom’ — this enormous cohort of young talent — so continued education guided by effective coaching and mentoring needs have returned.