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Leverage Mentoring to Teach Entry-Level Workers Soft Skills

On-boarding season is upon us. With most college graduation ceremonies in the rearview, many organizations are preparing to welcome hundreds — for some, maybe thousands — of entry-level hires into the workplace.

This flood of entry-level workers can be a burden for learning leaders, who, aside from having to revamp materials for technical-skill training, are charged with introducing to new employees the soft skills necessary to thrive in their professional lives.

For most entry-level workers, this might be their first full-time job in a highly professional environment — summer internships and stints flipping burgers at the local public pool don’t count. Therefore, knowing what behaviors and soft traits are needed to become valued employees — communication, teamwork, general workplace etiquette, etc. — can be a major adjustment.

Luckily for learning practitioners, the means to teach soft skills don’t necessarily require complex learning programs. In fact, for many Gen Y workers, some of the most effective soft-skill training can remain informal, according to David DeLong, author of the forthcoming book, Graduate to a Great Job: How to Make Your College Degree Pay Off in Today’s Market.

The trick, DeLong said, is for learning practitioners to clearly define vital soft skill behaviors — either through stories or relatable examples, during an on-boarding welcome session. Then, pair new hires up with a respected mentor who already exhibits these behaviors and let nature take its course. “When teaching soft skills to Gen Y you can’t lecture,” DeLong said. “You’ve got to get them into interactive, experiential learning as quickly as possible.”

Yet while most might use older mentors to help younger workers get acquainted with a firm’s desired behaviors, Gen Y might be more receptive if their mentor is a peer, said Bob Taylor, CEO of learning and development firm OrgWide Services LLC. Taylor said peer mentors of similar age range might be more comfortable for a new hire — as they may be less afraid to seek help or ask questions than with more senior-level mentors.

The goal, Taylor said, is that the Gen Y new hires, playing off their desire to act and relate well with respected peers, will likely end up mirroring behaviors over time. For Frederick Wentz, author of Soft Skills Training: A Workbook to Develop Skills for Employment, mentoring relationships are a great way to convey skills that are often hard to define through traditional learning materials, such as in a classroom or through an e-learning course.

“When you put a new employee in a workgroup, he or she follows what the other employees are doing,” said Wentz, who spends much of his time teaching soft skills to troubled inner-city youth and former prison inmates as they transition back into the workforce.

DeLong agreed, saying that classroom and e-learning should act as a starting point or back-up resource throughout the learning period. “When you’re trying to teach a generation or a particular age group,” he said, “harness peer pressure or identify influencers [or] opinion leaders in a group and spend extra time engaging them in these behaviors.”

In the end, however, it’s important that soft skill training remains a human experience, said Steve Mulder, director of employee development at Farmers Insurance. When a new employee joins a company, “it’s about making human connections in the company,” he said. Soft skill training is all about experiencing proper human interaction.

Aside from the comprehensive set of e-learning modules that Farmers equips its entry-level employees with when they join, the company also makes it a point to pair them up with an informal “peer guide.” The peer guide is required to check in with the new employee at least twice during the first six months of employment, but Mulder said mentors often check in more often, and in some cases the relationship extends far beyond that initial period.

And even though Farmers facilitates a lot of its soft skill training — which it refers to as “core skills” — through e-learning or other virtual environments, Mulder said the company tries to follow up almost every course or learning experience with some kind of a human connection or debrief with a mentor, either in person or virtually.

The most powerful driver for a learning professional, however, is to get enough peer opinion leaders to engage in the desired soft skill behaviors, so that those behaviors become ingrained as part of a firm’s culture, which will diminish the legwork for the learning leader.

“You can teach these [desired] behaviors all you want,” DeLong said. “But if they’re not supported by the culture, they’re not going to be used.”

Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@CLOmedia.com.