Mick Goodwin, application engineer at Markforged, looks at how to make reverse mentoring successful in manufacturing.
It’s hard to escape news reports on the current skills shortage and its effect on the UK economy. The Open University’s Business Barometer Report indicates that 61% of businesses across the country are experiencing a skills shortage. Engineering, manufacturing and digital continue to be among the sectors with the largest skills gaps.
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Many businesses are investing in apprenticeships and on-the-job training to help tackle these issues and to shore up a skilled workforce, but some still shy away from hiring younger or less experienced workers for fear of the investment in time and money that training them up can incur – only for many to move on and take their newly acquired skills elsewhere.
Rather than seeing hiring new graduates or junior staff as a cost burden, however, some businesses are reaping the benefits they can offer.
The trend of ‘reverse mentoring’ is taking off, and for some companies it is playing an important role. This practice of partnering senior executives with junior staff or new graduates in a mentoring relationship encourages the introduction of fresh perspectives, new skills and innovation into the engineering and manufacturing sectors. New hires are empowered to share their skills across the business through their senior colleagues and leaders.
This can help introduce new working practices, the wider adoption of digital platforms and newer technologies, such as 3D printing, into the workplace. It has also been shown to improve staff retention.
Jack Thomas, technical specialist on PrintCity Network project, graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University with an arts and textiles degree in 2019. He went on to do his Masters at the University’s PrintCity in 2020 before being recruited by the unit itself. He comments:
“I have quite a unique specialism – a Bachelor of Arts and a Masters in Science degree. From a practical point of view, I have brought my digital, fashion and textiles expertise to PrintCity and am often able to support my senior-level colleagues with my wide range of knowledge. They definitely listen to me and respect that I do bring in a different set of skills.
“It’s the same in the commercial world, companies know they need something, but they don’t always know what. These digital skills are vital to the workplace today. Employers need to realise there is a resource in these youngsters. They have energy, passion and knowledge to offer.”
The practice of reverse mentoring needs to be nurtured from the very beginning; students who embrace this approach will enter the workplace with exactly the right mindset.
Making reverse mentoring successful
Whilst reverse mentoring can bring a range of benefits to organisations and individuals, it isn’t necessarily a straightforward process. Any reverse mentoring scheme or relationship needs to be carefully thought through and structured in a targeted way that supports all those involved to get the best out of the initiative.
Incorporating the following approaches into your reverse mentoring scheme will help make it successful:
➢ Ensure everyone is on board with the programme. Mentees, no matter what their seniority or level of experience, need to be open minded and ready to accept new knowledge and ask questions. Make sure everyone understands the need to commit to a long-term partnership as it takes time to develop trust and the relationships needed for significant change and development.
➢ Be careful with conflicts of interest. Think carefully about pairings. It may not be suitable to have a mentor paired with anyone in their direct line of management.
➢ Create written agreements to ensure clear understanding of the reverse mentoring relationship. Communicate and agree on the purpose, rules and goals. How will you communicate? What does the mentee want to learn? When and where will you meet? How long is the relationship expected to last? This could be anything from a few months to a year or more, or just when the goals are achieved.
➢ Develop boundaries and ensure there are guidelines on professionalism. Giving guidance and security in their position is especially important for new graduates or students with little workplace experience.
➢ Set up regular meetings to keep up the pace of the mentoring. Executives and senior staff may be busy, but meeting at least once a month will be beneficial. Mentees will almost certainly be senior in age as well as position within the organisation and should therefore still have the responsibility to maintain and lead the mentoring relationship.
➢ Build evaluation points and feedback strategies into the programme so the organisation and the participants can assess how it is going and ensure both parties are benefitting.
It would seem that the practice of reverse mentoring really is a win-win for all.
 Open University Business Barometer 2021. October 2021. P 22. file:///Users/lisahenshaw/Downloads/The_Open_University_Business_Barometer_Report__2021-1.pdf