Mentoring has become something of a panacea for anyone wanting to get ahead in the job stakes. If you’re seeking promotion, a mentor can help. Looking at a career change? You need a mentor.

The Government is in on the act too. Earlier this year the former Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled a new business mentor scheme for young people at risk of failing to achieve their GCSE potential. Even the recently announced care leaver’s covenant has promised every care leaver will be allocated a mentor.

But do formal mentoring programmes work? There are mixed views on that but, perhaps encouragingly, those that fail seem to suffer many of the same problems, notably poor matching of mentors and mentees, and problems with communication.

With our eyes wide open, and learning from organisations and individuals who have run or been involved in mentoring schemes we’re launching our own mentor programme later this month.

The time is right for us

This year more young care leavers than ever have joined our programme and we have been able to help more of them into work. Our approach works because of the one-to-one support we provide and we have been considering the best way to provide emotional and practical back-up to our young people during their first few months in a new job.

Many of them haven’t worked before and certainly haven’t had much in the way of structure and routine in their life. Unlike many of us as young adults, they don’t have anyone at home to get them out of bed and give them momentum.

Closing the door on care leavers as soon as they get into work is unhelpful and a bit of extra support can mean they overcome initial difficulties and stay in their first job for longer, gaining vital skills and confidence. We know they can feel overwhelmed and out of their depth in an unfamiliar environment. They perhaps don’t have the confidence to ask the ‘silly’ questions we all want to know when we start a new job. We figure it would be reassuring for them to have someone they can ask for a bit of support or talk to about their day.

Care leavers can find themselves in confrontational situations because they sometimes struggle with taking feedback or criticism, seeing it as a personal attack. Again, having an independent person who can help them work out what’s reasonable and normal in the workplace could make the difference.

Our young people are keen

Feedback from the young people we work with is that they feel a mentor will help them and that they would value having someone to talk to about work issues.  For us, this marks quite a milestone and for some, a huge change in attitude.

Care leavers can be very wary of the adults in their lives because for the most part those adults are paid to be there. A mentor is someone who is giving up their free time to be with them, taking a genuine interest in their lives and treating them as adults. Our young people recognise this and have responded enthusiastically.

It’s a step on from what they have become familiar with at Drive Forward. We will still be here in the background and the mentor provides a link to us but this is an empowering and self-driven relationship. The mentor relationship will also be very separate to the young person’s workplace; that’s important for confidentiality and helps the young person to build trust with their mentor.

We’re starting small and preparing well

We have looked in detail at why mentoring schemes fail and the crucial thing for us is that we’re starting with a modest number of volunteers, around ten in total, and putting considerable effort into matching mentors and mentees. Because our mentors will work with young people who are starting new jobs, we’re particularly focussing on career interests/experiences and personality types. We’re also asking our young people to think carefully about what they want from the relationship.

Importantly, we are working with Alex Hassett, Principal Lecturer and Senior Consultant in the Salomons Centre for Applied Psychology in Canterbury, to give our mentors an insight into how childhood trauma impacts on brain development and has an ongoing impact on moods and behaviour. Giving mentors a deeper understanding of these issues and the skills to respond to and manage the resulting behaviours means they approach the relationship well-informed and confident in the knowledge they themselves have the support of professionals available to them.

Our Mentor Coordinator, Lucy Pollock, will work alongside Alex on the practicalities of how to structure meetings, set goals, deal with problems and keep young people engaged. Our mentors are giving an initial commitment of six months, with a detailed review after the first three months. We are scheduling regular mentor debriefs with the mentors, as well as some social activities so our volunteers understand they are a valued part of our team.

A new chapter for Drive Forward

We have selected what we think is a great team of mentors who tell us they are motivated by a desire to give someone the same opportunities they have (or haven’t) had. Some of the older mentors have children themselves and want our young people to have the same chances and choices. Our young people themselves are certainly keen to get started.

Our first training session takes place at the end of this month and we will update you on how the programme progresses over the coming months.

If you’re interested in volunteering with Drive Forward, we have a number of opportunities available.