By Gulcan Yayla
Mentorship programs for youth have recently gained attention for their potential to be “a catalyzer of change in a young person’s life”. At Kodluyoruz, a growing tech-focused youth workforce development organization in Turkey, we were also excited about starting a career-exploration and employment focused mentorship program. However, from our experience, we have concluded that stand-alone mentorship programs targeting young people aged 18-30 involve many challenges, which undermine their effectiveness. Yet we have seen these programs can be very successful when integrated into existing operations.
Mentoring programs are especially important for life skills development. Soft life skills “refer to a broad set of skills, competencies, behaviors, attitudes, and personal qualities that enable people to actively navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals”. These skills can be at least as important as academic and technical achievements. Some of the key soft skills for youth workforce success are communication, self-control, positive self-concept, and higher-order thinking skills.
The importance of soft life skills is evident when we consider job interviews more closely. When most of the interviewers make their hiring decisions in less than a minute, the importance of a first impression and professionalism in today’s job market becomes clear. A candidate who may not necessarily have all the required qualifications but shows enthusiasm towards learning and developing may be a stronger contender in comparison to a highly-qualified applicant who does not express herself/himself in a similar way. Our education system does little to address these issues. Greater emphasis should be placed on life-skills education in school curriculum.
Mentoring programs are generally created to fill this gap. In theory, these programs attempt to match an experienced professional with a young person to enhance self-esteem, life skills development, and personal growth. In real life, however, two significant downsides of stand-alone mentoring programs stem from commitment and value-add.
- Commitment: Finding time and energy to really make a difference in the young person’s life skills is challenging. This is true for both mentor and mentee. After the first meeting, they may lose the motivation to find more time to meet.
- Value-add: Even if the mentee starts the relationship with clear questions in mind, after a while, the value that mentoring relationship creates may become less obvious. Especially if the mentee-mentor don’t “click” with each other, the mentee may pose less questions and the relationship can die.
These issues can be minimized by using guidelines summarized in The National Mentoring Partnership’s Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring report. If proper screening processes are in place to control commitment levels when recruiting mentors, both mentors and mentees receive training about the expectations, skills, and time commitment needed to build a strong relationship, and a strong match is made, then the end results may be closer to expectations.
At Kodluyoruz, we have chosen to integrate the benefits of mentorship into in-class coding trainings. Our trainers, who are highly motivated and experienced professionals from the tech-sector, address important life skills within our classes. During classes, trainers discuss the expectations of the sector and how the participants should prepare themselves for these. If one of our students needs to practice for a job interview, our trainer takes on the responsibility and conducts a mock interview to prepare them. Because our trainers already interact daily with the youth in the classroom, it is easier for them to maintain more personal relationships with each student as opposed to the relatively artificial meetups traditionally organized for mentors and mentees to connect. Developing personal relationships takes time and each young person is different in regards to how and when they decide to open up. The natural environment of a classroom allows each participant take their time to get comfortable and ask questions. However, it must be recognized that this kind of integration is a naturally evolving process and therefore may take more time to facilitate.
The most rewarding result of our mentoring program is to receive feedback from participants. One participant from our program stated, “The biggest contribution of Kodluyoruz to me has been psychological support. I have been depressed before, thinking that I won’t be able to succeed in coding. But sharing my concerns with our trainer/mentor has been so beneficial and I no longer feel that way. The biggest reason that I have found a coding job is Kodluyoruz. I don’t feel lonely anymore.” Instilling the youth who participate in our programs with soft skills has a payoff well beyond the classroom. By supporting the youth emotionally, Kodluyoruz creates stronger, more well-rounded individuals who in turn understand the value of emotional support and life skills development to their future career success.
In summary, there are trade-offs between structured, stand-alone mentoring programs and mentoring integrated into existing interactions. The solution may lie in experimenting with different methods; in finding a balance based on cultural values and each unique environment. Thus far, our classroom integration method has been working well. We plan to continue analyzing this strategy closely to learn exactly what works best and how we can improve it further.
 Lippman, L. H., Ryberg, R., Carney, R., & Moore, K. A. (2015). Key “Soft Skills” that Foster Youth Workforce Success: Toward a Consensus Across Fields. Bethesda, MD: Child Trends.
Gulcan Yayla is a guest contributor for the Ye! blog. She is a recent MBA & MSW graduate from the Washington University in St. Louis, and a social entrepreneur working towards addressing high youth unemployment in Turkey. You can follow her on Twitter @gulcan_yayla.
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