How to boost talent and improve diversity by engaging with young people

Laura North, CEO of We Speak, which runs programmes for young people from under-represented backgrounds, explains what your firm can do
Laura North

Earlier this month during National Careers Week, The Student<>Employer Network launched a report, ‘Connecting employers to students: a practical guide for engaging young people with the world of work’ to help UK businesses reach out to engage students and young people with meaningful work opportunities.

We Speak is part of the network and we have co-authored the report with three other social enterprise leaders: Christine Kinnear, CEO, With Insight Education; Patricia Mbangui, Centre Leader, IntoUniversity Walworth (formerly at CoachBright) and Mayur Gupta, CEO, Career Accelerator. We pooled our knowledge to help businesses develop impactful outreach programmes for young people.

The reason businesses want to connect with young people is many are recognising the value of outreach programmes with young people to address their skills shortages, build diverse talent pipelines and tackle growing inequalities in education and employment, as well as provide developmental opportunities for their employees.

As leaders working with students we know that by engaging with businesses at an early stage can help them develop knowledge and skills that are valued in the workplace.

Simultaneously, employees can strengthen their transferable skills through mentoring, guiding or training young people, as well as increasing motivation.

There is a dual argument for working with students based on corporate social responsibility and of recruitment and retention. However although there is often a desire to connect with young people, often businesses just don’t know where to start.

Our report aims to change this and show businesses how they can connect with young people at school or college in ways that will benefit their organisation, and at the same time boost employment opportunities for young people. We make a number of recommendations in the report.

One is around diversity and inclusion which we believe should be at the forefront of any programme delivery to engage young people. Organisations that embed diversity and inclusion successfully in their programmes are insight led, have examined their own diversity and inclusion data, acknowledged and addressed existing diversity gaps and ensured diversity and inclusion is at the heart of their mission.

Another is investing in soft skills and collaborating with schools, charities or social enterprises to run programmes with students so they can develop soft skills before they start work. Later in this article there are examples of two companies currently doing this.

Widening the talent pool is key too. A report from the Social Mobility Commission highlights that some industries focus on a small number of elite institutions for recruitment and fail to recruit talented young people from less advantaged backgrounds. Such barriers need to be recognised in the first place in order to generate change.

Businesses leading the way

We Speak runs a 4-week online programme that transforms the speaking confidence of young people from under-represented backgrounds and connects them to businesses.

Employers say that communication skills are one of their top requirements. But young people from deprived areas are twice as likely to have communication difficulties and are therefore more likely to fall at the first hurdle of the job interview.

We train corporate employees in communication and mentoring skills which they then put into action during the online programme. The result is a significant boost to young people's speaking confidence and an easier way for the company to recruit diverse new talent.

We work with Investec, a banking and wealth management group. We Speak was a winner of Investec Beyond Business, a social enterprise incubation programme, in 2019. During the pandemic, we lost all of our in-person work overnight and Investec stepped in. We trained 12 of their employees as mentors and trialled an online programme. This led to students improving their speaking confidence by 41% in the space of four weeks. This online pilot has become our flagship programme.

Investec also run an initiative for sixth formers called Invest for Success in partnership with Arrival Education. Student teams purchase five initial stocks to create one investment portfolio and then trade their stocks at two-week intervals over a period of six months. The students also get the chance to meet Investec’s CEO and present their portfolios, including the lessons they have learned. Prizes are awarded for portfolio value, presentation skills and engagement.

Another company that has been engaging young people, even during the pandemic, is Wavemaker, a global media agency and part of WPP whose high profile clients include British Airways, Chanel, L’Oréal and Vodafone. Sixth formers from City and Islington College took part in WPP’s NextGen Leaders virtual learning series during lockdown to find out what it was like to work with one of the world’s largest marketing communications organisations.

The students received advice from business leaders, learnt about working in the media industry, and had the chance to network with WPP’s clients and partners. The participants in the programme also watched pre-recorded sessions and joined in live discussions to share their thoughts and ideas with one another.

Camilla Bruggen, Global Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Wavemaker said that the agency is building talent pipelines for the future. For them it’s important to have a diverse and inclusive workplace culture and they wanted the programme to continue throughout the pandemic.

Everyone involved with initiatives like this at Wavemaker has an opportunity to give back to the wider network and industry as a whole. Camilla said that NextGen Leaders was very successful and it gave students a real taste of it is like to work at WPP, as well as an opportunity to secure roles at WPP brands.  

We Speak supported this initiative by helping boost the confidence of the participants so they could contribute comfortably to discussions and speak confidently during NextGen Leaders. We trained Wavemaker staff as mentors and they worked with the students during live online workshops. The students received a certificate of achievement.

One of the participants was Ruth Mbu, also in the sixth form at City and Islington College at the time. Ruth had set up a work experience placement but this was cancelled due to the pandemic. The support she received from NextGen Leaders and We Speak boosted her confidence.

She found the programme really inspiring, particularly learning about the different elements of the marketing world and how she could exist within it. A highlight for her was receiving insights from her mentors as well as having the opportunity to share her learnings in a final presentation at a graduation event with Wavemaker and We Speak. This experience has been vital in helping her secure her current role as Communications Assistant Apprentice at the British Fashion Council.

These programmes highlight some of the ways that leading businesses are engaging with young people from diverse backgrounds and connecting them up with work opportunities. Organisations are benefiting from working with young people, listening to their views and helping to prepare them with skills they will need in their future careers. This is helping build their talent pipelines and improve diversity in a meaningful and positive way.

The Student<>Employer Network is running a webinar on Monday 25 April, 11.30am-12.30pm to show businesses how easy it can be to start engaging with students. To book a place, click here.

To download the report click here.

Written by
Laura North
CEO, We Speak
March 25, 2022
Written by
March 25, 2022