Mentoring the millennials: a call to action

There’s a significant difference in self-confidence and job-readiness between those who can point to a mentor and those who can’t

In conversation with a friend, I mentioned that I LOVE hanging out with folks in their late teens and early twenties. He was surprised when I added, “It’s my favorite age group.”

“That age is such a mystery to me,” he responded, “They’re always on their phones – so unapproachable.”

I can certainly understand this perspective. Younger generations are always somewhat of an enigma to older generations, and my friend’s admission probably expresses how many of us in our mid- and late- careers feel about “kids.” I beat myself up for spending too much time on my phone, but the younger generation actually seems to prefer texting to breathing. They have strange hobbies and interests; they dress more casually, they seem to have a secret language I don’t understand.

Through my work, as a college professor and career coach, however, I’ve come to know the millennial generation as an amazing group of people. They are self-directed and skillful with technology; they are good teachers and have great self-deprecating humor. This humor is often a defense mechanism – they’ve grown up during a massive recession, and many have seen their parents get laid off and face major financial challenges.

In my career coaching practice, I’ve noticed a significant difference in self-confidence and job-readiness between those who can point to a mentor and those who can’t. Research backs this up; studies have shown that mentors are critical in building self-confidence, strong networks and career development skills.

In New Hampshire, mentoring college students or young professionals is not just a service to individuals, but also a community service. We need more young people to stay here after graduating from college, and we want to keep them after they start their careers.

I have met so many young professionals who directly and indirectly link their decision to stay in New Hampshire and success here to their work with a mentor. 

A mentoring plan

Mentees can be found through many sources.

You can start looking in your workplace for interns or new hires that might need help. You can get in touch with the alumni office at your alma mater, or you can dig into your own personal network. (This probably goes without saying – but don’t try to mentor your own child! The job of a parent is distinct from the job of a mentor.)

I encourage you to find the diamonds in the rough. Working with someone who has lower self-confidence and fewer career skills is more challenging, but has the potential to make a much greater impact. 

There’s no template for mentoring, and a “one-size-fits-all” approach would never work. Given that your time with them is most likely limited, however, it’s good to map out your objectives for the work that you’ll do together.

Here are a few general goals that I suggest as starting points as you develop your mentoring plan. 

• Build their self-confidence. I’ve found that the best way to do this is to show them the value of the experiences they’ve already had. One student I was mentoring recently told me that he “doesn’t have much work experience, just working for my dad.” After a little probing, I discovered that his dad owns a high-rise window washing business! My student hangs off 15-story buildings on a regular basis, and he has trained many others how to do this work. We worked together to craft his narrative so that he can communicate to others his powerful personal story on his resume and when networking.

• Help them face their fears. Here on campus, we often lament that most students skip our biannual job fairs. When I talk to the students, however, I learn that they are not too busy, or too lazy. They are scared. They feel uncomfortable getting dressed up, they’re worried their resumes aren’t good enough, and they have no idea how to initiate professional conversations. As a mentor, give them the practice and critical feedback they need to be successful in networking events. Help them develop scripts for when they’re out of their comfort zone, make sure their resume is stellar, and help them perfect their handshake and body language. 

• Continually remind them to problem-solve. Remind them to figure things out, and don’t let them off the hook. Most importantly, they have to learn not to let a small roadblock derail them, so keep pushing them to figure how to get what they need and want. 

• Encourage your mentees to be a part of the community through meaningful volunteer work. Pull them into committees that you are already on, if it’s appropriate, or encourage them to join a young professionals network in their community. This is not only great for their resume, but it’s great for their self-confidence, not to mention our community. 

• Most importantly – learn from them. Recognize their strengths and vitality. Engaging in deep one-on-one mentoring of students and very early professionals has been the most rewarding work I’ve done – mostly because of how much I experience in my own personal growth and expanded compassion. Mentoring is an unending source of inspiration. 

Lastly, don’t let mentoring overly frustrate you. It’s very likely that some mentees won’t be as “successful” as you hoped. That’s OK. Mentors don’t control the actions of their mentees; they simply guide, observe and offer a helping hand when it’s needed. Accepting your role as the “tribal elder” who passes on knowledge and ushers the next generation through the rites of passage of early adulthood is profound, surprising and fun. 

Emily T. Porschitz, an associate professor in the Department of Management at Keene State College, has published academic research on careers and millennials. She also is a partner in LaunchingU, a career coaching organization that focuses on developing the career skills of college students and young professionals.