Virtual Mentoring to Bounce Back After COVID19
Shaz Memon and Zeeshaan Shah argue that online mentoring may offer a policy solution for ensuring the young are not left behind in the post-pandemic recovery.
In the short term, the cost of COVID (and lockdown) is measured in human lives. In the medium term, it is in economic damage. But in the long term, it is in the damage it will do to a generation through disrupted education, reduced career prospects, and ruined mental health. Mentoring can heal the generational divides, and provide today’s young with the opportunities enjoyed by their parents and grandparents.
The alternative is for generational inequalities to become cemented over our lifetimes, leaving ‘Generation Covid’ without the support, advice and opportunities they need to overcome the social and financial difficulties they face.
COVID has certainly presented challenges for such a project: at a time when billions of children and young people have had their education disrupted, mentoring schemes will be the least of their worries. This is particularly the case in the developing world, where digital divides can become chasms and internet access - often the only safe way for both education and mentoring to be delivered - is a luxury of the upper classes. However, public internet access points (eg. internet cafes) as well as increased internet access (which is one of the best investments a global south government can make) can widen access to both learning and mentoring.
Even before the pandemic, younger generations were facing falling social mobility. They have been facing falling real wages, fewer opportunities and declining living standards. Data from the Office of National Statistics indicates that the virus has worsened existing inequalities based on age, race, ethnicity and health status.
COVID has also exacerbated workplace divides. Just under a quarter of employees in Britain have been furloughed, with 6.3 million jobs temporarily laid off by 800,000 companies. Many others have been laid off completely.
And one of the largest long-term impacts of the pandemic will be the repercussions of ‘educational scarring’. Leaving school without the necessary qualifications will be deadly in a labour market packed with job seekers.
The policy ideas to address these crises are flooding in, such as from LSE on COVID and Social Mobility. They include a one-off progressive wealth tax, job guarantees for those unemployed for longer than six months, more credible vocational schemes to complement traditional educational routes, and living wages for key workers. But there is one powerful social mobility catalyst they are missing; mentors.
Mentoring is usually associated with a senior practitioner who guides a student towards mastery of a specific skill or field. What today’s youth need is a more generalised approach to mentorship that can help in careers and entrepreneurship but also in areas like their fitness and relationships that have also been hit by the pandemic.
For example, imagine a school leaver, facing today’s climate having worked hard to achieve his preferred university spot to study Business, in order to become an entrepreneur. His exams are cancelled, and thanks to the average performance of his school, his projected grades fall short. He has no prospects to meet those in his desired profession, and none of his family members have any connections who are entrepreneurs. His future, at this point, looks bleak.
However, through a mentoring programme, a student like this could be matched with a business owner for, say, an hour a week. Not only could the mentor highlight alternative routes into entrepreneurship and offer industry insights, he can also offer the benefit of his connections - that most precious of commodities. The budding entrepreneur could also learn the soft skills of communication and professionalism.
This quite old-fashioned approach can achieve much more than simply rolling out more formalised training and education schemes, and can be a game changer for those from lower income families. Every healthy society enables the transfer of knowledge between generations, and there should be a renewed focus on this.
If we are to recover from the economic toll of the pandemic, we need the COVID generation to build the companies of tomorrow. Just as Disney was born from the ashes of the Great Depression, it is today’s youth who will build the companies that will define the coming decades.
Wage stagnation and high unemployment are quantifiable metrics working against the COVID generation. But there is also the unquantifiable disadvantage of missed opportunities to socialise, network and schmooze their way through the critical early stages of professional life.
Every successful person, no matter the field, has had at least one mentor throughout their career - even if they didn’t label them as such. Mentors tell you things you can’t read online or in a text book, and open opportunities you never knew were there. It is no surprise, then, that entrepreneurs with mentors start businesses that are 300% more likely to be successful.
Employees with mentors are five times more likely to be promoted, and those benefits cut both ways: Mentors are six times more likely to be promoted themselves. This answers the question: why would a successful mentor take the time and energy to do this? As well as the innate need to create a legacy and pass on one’s experience, the process itself can be as enriching for the mentor as for the mentee. Lord Acton said that we should learn as much by writing as we do from reading. The same could be said of mentoring.
Let’s level the playing field and ensure that this generation can enjoy the sense of fairness and opportunity that prior generations did.
Zeeshaan Shah is founder of mentoring start-up Mentorik and ex BBC Apprentice.