Commentary: Do your part to mentor millennials for the workforce

I have a new year's challenge for Orange County employers and leaders: Make 2017 the year we stop reinforcing the caricature of millennials as an unmotivated, over-sensitive generation requiring participation trophies.

Instead, let's mentor them so they can achieve their potential.

There is no doubt that the cohort coming of age now is unlike any in living memory. But after 25 years teaching and leading college and university students, I can assure you that millennials are not a generation of indolent idealists uninspired to seize the reins of leadership.

They are, however, uninterested in achieving the goals set by previous generations as markers of success. As a president and CEO, then, it is my responsibility to understand the dynamics of a multigenerational workforce and to provide opportunities for employees of all generations to be innovative and grow professionally.

We glibly blame millennials for arriving on college campuses and in entry-level careers unprepared for the rigors of adulthood. But weren't they raised under constant supervision and implicitly taught that showing up was good enough?

I am convinced that America isn't facing a workforce crisis; we're experiencing a crisis of confidence. We protected millennials more than we prepared them. What they need now is mentoring, not mockery.

Across the nation, indeed throughout Orange County, the time-honored tradition of mentoring is vanishing. While college graduates may be confident they're ready to succeed, hiring managers aren't convinced – and this must change for the socioeconomic engine of Orange County to continue to operate at full throttle.

The 2016 Workforce-Skills Preparedness Report published by PayScale quantified the disparity. Although 87% of recent graduates responding to the survey said they feel well prepared to enter their field of professional study, only half of managers agreed with them.

The perception is that these graduates don't possess the requisite soft skills — attributes such as curiosity, grit, ownership, attention to detail, interpersonal communications or problem-solving proficiency — to lead or even contribute substantively to organizations.

Another study from the Economic Policy Institute revealed that underemployment was the reality for more than half of those who graduated in the past two years. If millennials are the future of the Orange County workforce, it is our responsibility and in our best interest to prepare them for it, and mentoring is the key.

There is a mentoring gap in America. One in three young adults have grown up without a mentor, says the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership and the Corporation for National and Community Service. Since 2002, institutions have spearheaded National Mentoring Month every January.

At Vanguard University, we are witnesses to the incredible impact mentoring has on our students. We see students thrive in a 15 to 1 student-faculty ratio and through the generosity and foresight of Orange County business and community leaders who volunteer as mentors to our students through a range of university programs.

Mentoring is a critical component of our vision to cultivate curiosity, grit, ownership and other key soft skills, in addition to the academic excellence, character development and global perspective associated with a liberal arts education. Together, these hard and soft skills combine to form the seeds of greatness that each graduate carries with them into the future.

Our students don't flourish because these mentors pave pathways for them. Nor do their levels of confidence swell because professionals only praise their progress or commend their performance. These young adults benefit because they are being prepared to compete in the future workforce as well as in life.

The best mentors assume the difficult-yet-required role of critic: instructively pointing out what students still need to learn instead of complimenting them on what they know already. In this environment — as in life — people grow because they've struggled to overcome shortcomings not merely because they possess innate talent. Hearing "no" is a formative part of getting to "yes" in life.

So I ask local employers and leaders to be a part of the solution this year. Help us build the workforce Orange County wants by being the mentor young adults need. National Mentoring Month offers resources to create mentoring programs and the more than two dozen colleges and universities in Orange County – Vanguard University included – could put your essential abilities to use.

MICHAEL J. BEALS is president of Vanguard University in Costa Mesa.

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