Business as a Force for Good: By Sally Melvin, CEO of Ablaze

I have worked for over 20 years connecting businesses to young people and I’m a great believer in the potential of business as a force for good. I have witnessed, time after time, the impact on the confidence, aspirations and well-being of the young people involved.

For seven years I’ve been CEO of Ablaze, an independent charity whose mission is to tackle inequality of opportunity for young people in the West of England. We recruit, train and support volunteers from our partner businesses to deliver programmes to a variety of young people. Our focus is on those cohorts who are under-served, hardest to reach and who lack the support and connections to facilitate their career pathways and ambitions.

I know from bringing up my own children, that having parents and associated adults in your life who can support you with your aspirations and help you make useful connections gives you a huge advantage. When this is missing, connecting with sympathetic and tenacious volunteers from business can be transformative.

It makes sense for the business community to invest time and energy in young people. They are our future workforce. Businesses know the skills and competencies that will best serve their prosperity and growth. We need to find ways of sharing that knowledge so that young people who are starting out on their work journeys can become more employable.

An effective way of doing this is through mentoring. As Eric Parsloe, founder of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council says, “The purpose of mentoring is to support and encourage people to manage their own learning in order that they may maximise their potential, develop their skills, improve their performance and become the person they want to be”.  Everyone can benefit from mentoring and coaching – I myself have found it useful in my own career – but for a young person who lacks confidence and direction it is a powerful tool to unlock potential and support upskilling and growth.

All the programmes we deliver have mentoring at their core. Since March 2021 we have been supporting work placement candidates on the Government funded Kickstart Scheme. Each one was given a mentor and access to employability workshops and career advice and guidance. For me, success looks like a young person who can see a positive future through time spent reflecting on themselves and their abilities. ‘I feel more confident in my own ability and have learnt more about what I am capable of. I have a better understanding of how I can use the skills I have learnt in my future roles.’  Kickstart candidate 

There was a large response from people wanting to be mentors in response the call we put out for volunteers. Individuals could see the importance of offering support to young people entering the workforce, particularly in light of the issues due to Covid. One mentor told me, ‘I gained an understanding of how difficult it is for young people it the workplace. It is easy to forget how the simple things such as communication and teamwork can be really daunting for new workers especially if starting work during a pandemic and unable to spend much time in an office learning the social skills within a workplace’.

Post pandemic we are facing a huge challenge tackling the issues and barriers our region’s young people are facing. Social mobility has been set back by a decade according to the Sutton Trust’s research. Well-being and confidence amongst young people are at an all-time low. 

Although we are now learning to live with Covid the working practices that have emerged as a result are likely to be with us for a while. Working from home is now normal, with most offices asking workers to come in for only two days a week. The issue of learning in the workplace will remain a problem for entry level employees. If we can translate the individual desire to help that we saw in response to Kickstart into business wide initiatives, businesses can be a force for good for their new employees. 

I think there is a sense of urgency for the business community to take action to support young people entering the job market. For those who are least work ready we should put recruitment and employment packages in place to enable them to develop the right competencies and attitudes so that they can offer employers real added value. Ultimately this investment will be good for everyone.

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