Remembering my first job, in a busy pharmacy at the tender age of 15, I recall colleagues of all ages inducting me (with varying degrees of success!) into the world of work. Occasionally strict, harsh and didactic, but more often than not, friendly and encouraging, helping me to find my own ‘work identity’.
I learned to remain calm in the face of a demanding customer, provide solutions when we couldn’t offer a refund and recall, at a moment’s notice, the thousands of products we stocked and where to find them. I watched my older counterparts, learning what to say and what not to say to make a sale.
My first pay cheque was a humble amount that gave me a first taste of financial independence. I learned to ‘put my game face on’, even after a long night of study or exam preparation. I smiled, served customers and tried to make their shopping experience exceptional.
These memories are not unique. In fact, many of us will recall similar moments in the first years of our working lives. Some humorous and some even disastrous! They are formative stories, in developing our approach to work, understanding what an industry is really like, how to behave, ask for help, receive feedback and navigate relationships with colleagues.
When you stop to think about your working life, I could safely bet that you can recall one, two (or more if you’re lucky) key people who gave you a great piece of advice, taught you a hard lesson or shared something with you that was surprising, inspiring or even quite simple. Perhaps it helped you to realise that you needed to change direction. Perhaps at the time, it was hard to hear but you’re eternally grateful for how it changed your approach.
That adult, who gave you a chance, stood beside you, advocated for you and showed you how to do things properly was instrumental in your progression. Even if you didn’t realise it at the time.
But many young people today are lacking positive, employed role models to provide them with the kind of support many of us enjoyed when we were starting out.
21 years into my own working life, I am working with the Beacon Foundation to address this. We’re helping young people to successfully transition from education to meaningful employment. To do this, we build connections between industry, schools and the community, and a significant portion of our work involves linking industry volunteers to young people, online.
We have a wonderful partnership with the Origin Foundation, whose volunteers work across all our programs. In 2017, 20% of Origin’s volunteering for Beacon occurred online. We use videoconferencing technology to connect young people in remote and regional areas with adults from all walks of life, who have experienced the world of work.
We encourage volunteers to ‘take off the mask’, to share some vulnerability and raw insights from their experience. To reassure young people that many adults are also ‘faking it ‘til they make it’ at times in their working life. DiRenzo, (2013) states ‘through online communication, protégés will come to understand the knowledge, skills, and abilities of their mentors and gain insights and confidence regarding their own abilities as well.’
Take the four volunteers who participated in an e-mentoring pilot with Goodooga Central School, a remote school in north western NSW. Given its remoteness, there are no shops, and no industry in Goodooga, and young people are not able to access work experience without travelling long distances to major regional centres. The fear and apprehension young people experience about leaving their families to seek work is a significant barrier. The nearest town, Lightning Ridge is 74km away. 90% of the students identify as First Nations young people.
Origin volunteers led six mentoring sessions with Years 7-8 students, designed to raise aspirations and increase the students’ awareness of the types of jobs and career pathways available to them. Essential to the program’s success was the mentors’ ability to understand and respect cultural differences, build rapport and establish trust. For many of the students, it was the first time they had conversed with an employed adult outside of their teachers.
Importantly, the program had a significant impact on student engagement, attitudes to education as well as their futures. All students reported they felt more confident and had new hopes for their futures. 70% of the students discovered new options for their future job.
The value of these open, authentic conversations cannot be understated. I encourage you to reflect, once again on your career pathway and consider how you might share your insights with a young person in your circle of influence.