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On-Demand Human Connection

Tapping technology to expand mentorship for college students and frontline workers.

Four approaches to mentorship amid a surge of interest among colleges and employers. Also, early thoughts on what new developments in generative AI might mean for education and work, and a podcast episode with a reality check from two experts on AI’s impacts.

Going Big With Mentors

Mentorship is a popular solution for helping students keep on track as they work toward a credential and landing a career. With increasing support from employers, a growing number of colleges are tapping nonprofits and ed-tech platforms to connect students to mentors.

For example, the pandemic fueled interest in the Mentor Collective, which now works with 200 colleges, including an increasing number of community colleges. The company also partners with large employers on their education and career advancement programs, including Amazon and Wells Fargo.

Mentor Collective provides software and services to help colleges recruit upper-division students and recent alums as mentors. The overarching goal is to create authentic, virtual connections for students and actionable insights for college leaders about what is disrupting students’ lives, says Erin Mayhood, the company’s CEO.

She says on-demand connection is particularly valuable for students and mentors who are juggling school, work, childcare, and household responsibilities. 

“Being able to text with each other while on a bus ride to work, or late at night after getting kids to bed,” Mayhood says, “this can really remove the barriers to student engagement.”

More of Mentor Collective’s college partners are paying their students and alums to serve as mentors. One reason, says Mayhood, is that “institutions often want to validate, with pay, the transferable skills that students gain as mentors in a way that helps them in their careers.

Paid mentorship can be a particularly good fit for the company’s community colleges partners, and for online and continuing education programs. For community colleges, Mayhood sees more of a focus on long-term relationships and on tapping local workers as mentors.

“A community member working at the local hospital as a nurse is actually a great ‘near peer’ mentor for an adult learner working on nursing credentials but simultaneously working at the same hospital as a medical assistant,” she says.

Employer Support: Braven offers underrepresented students at four-year institutions a career-accelerating course followed by support through graduation. The nonprofit has boosted its mentorship capacity, with more than 3.5K volunteer mentors this year, up from 400 six years ago, and a plan to hit 5K next year.

For every 1K students it serves, Braven’s volunteers provide 17K hours of coaching and mentoring.

“Our employer partners are key in helping us recruit volunteers to work with our fellows,” says Aimée Eubanks Davis, Braven’s founder and CEO.

Companies have stepped up with financial support as well. Braven’s employer network now contributes $7M in annual funding—nearly half of the group’s core budget.

“One thing we’ve seen that is helpful in growth is maintaining relationships with employers and volunteers across various sectors, which helps us weather hard moments for certain sectors in the economy,” says Eubanks Davis.

Social Capital at Scale

With more than 150K volunteer mentors, CareerVillage offers students online career advice from working professionals. The nonprofit says its free and personalized career support has reached more than 7M people across 190 countries.

Most of those volunteers found CareerVillage after learning about the group from friends, online searches, or volunteer marketplaces such as LinkedIn and Volunteer Match. About a third come via their employer, including the group’s 40 partner companies.

CareerVillage last year began testing an AI-powered career coach, which provides mock interviews and can help offer personalized career guidance at scale, Jared Chung, the group’s founder and executive director, said during a panel I moderated last month at the ASU+GSV Summit.

“Job navigation is a core skill and that’s what we’ve been focusing on with the AI career coach—equipping people with the skills they need to change and navigate jobs as a lifelong skill, not as a thing you have to do just to get into the labor market and then bon voyage, good luck with it,” he said. 

The group this year is running two pilot programs to measure the impact of Coach, the relatively new AI tool. And CareerVillage plans to begin a substantial longitudinal study with a university on Coach next year.

Alumni Networks: Protopia is positioned as an alumni and donor engagement tool—and thus can tap universities’ sizable fundraising budgets—but it’s built around mentoring and career development. The basic premise is simple: A student can ask any question, and Protopia will find a knowledgeable alum to answer it.

By using AI, Protopia can offer participants a relatively light commitment. The company taps into the universe of alumni with an active email address, who don’t have to create an account on a specific platform or sign up for mentoring. A student just asks a question through a simple online form, and the AI model gets to work. 

It dissects the question, combs through the alumni database to find the best fits, and then fires off emails on the student’s behalf. If the first-choice alumni don’t answer within a set time period, the model moves on to the next best matches. About 91–93% of all questions get answered—most by 2 to 3 alums—and 10–15% result in an ongoing connection or mentorship, the company says.

AI dramatically increases the odds that questions from students yield answers from alums, says Max Leisten, Protopia’s founder and CEO. “If I ask you the right thing at the right time, I know I can get you to help.”

Julia Freeland Fisher is director of education at the Clayton Christensen Institute and an expert on social capital’s role in higher education and career connections. She likes Protopia and CareerVillage’s approach to using AI in career support because they are designed to help students connect with other humans, rather than just a bot.

While AI can help extend the reach of mentor networks, she says real-life experiences and connections are crucial to reducing unequal access to good careers.

The Kicker: “We could flood that gap with bots and pat ourselves on the back and still have the same inequities,” says Freeland Fisher.

Elyse Ashburn contributed reporting for this article.

Latest from The Cusp Podcast

“We can and should try to learn from what we did wrong in the past with technology adoption to get some of this right.”Katy Knight, executive director and president of the Siegel Family Endowment

Next Wave of AI Chatbots

Big Tech companies this week touted a dizzying array of advancements with generative AI tools, and more announcements are expected to follow in coming weeks. Those developments could have impacts on education and work, many experts predicted.

For example, the voice assistant OpenAI unveiled as part of its GPT-4o rollout holds promise for tutoring, wrote George Siemens, an ed-tech expert who is working on AI projects with Southern New Hampshire University, including a data consortium led by the American Council of Education. 

Sal Khan is the founder of Khan Academy, which is making a push with a chatbot tutor. In an OpenAI demonstration this week, Khan and his son talked with the voice assistant to show how it can aid and encourage human-to-human interaction.

Also noteworthy was the company’s move to make its new app available for free, albeit with limitations for nonpaying users. Experts have wondered whether students who attend community colleges or high schools with fewer resources will be able to access top-flight generative AI tools, or to glean insights into how they work.

“With universal free access, the educational value of AI skyrockets,” Ethan Mollick, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, wrote in his newsletter. 

However, Mollick predicted that cheating will become ubiquitous alongside universal high-end tutoring. He also wrote that widespread access to free tools in the workplace could lead to employees automating their work and not telling their employers.

Google remains the AI heavyweight, as Siemens noted. This week, the company introduced a series of updates to its Gemini family of generative AI models, as well as its vision for the future of AI assistants.

Gemini is more than chatbot, said Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet. “It’s designed to be your personal, helpful assistant that can help you tackle complex tasks and take actions on your behalf,” Pichai said.

Open Tabs

Federal Policy
The U.S. Department of Commerce formalized its approach to workforce development this week with a new order to unify and expand its efforts. The department wants to equip workers with essential skills for emerging technologies that are vital to economic and national security. The plan focuses on investing in employer-driven education and training systems, helping employers change their practices, and producing timely data.

Staffing Fabs
Semiconductor workers are increasingly likely to leave their current jobs, with fully half (53%) of employees saying they are at least somewhat likely to depart within six months, finds a new analysis from McKinsey. The industry must find ways to source additional new talent to staff their expanding U.S. operations, the report says, noting that even optimistic projections indicate there will be considerable workforce shortfalls.

Skill-Based Learning
ETS has acquired the Mastery Transcript Consortium, which develops learning records for high school students. The testing firm linked the acquisition to the Skills for the Future Initiative it’s conducting jointly with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. That project seeks a “fundamental paradigm shift from time-based to skill-based learning.” The consortium’s network spans schools serving 500K learners.

Pay It Forward
Massachusetts will partner with the nonprofit Social Finance to create a new careers fund to help develop the climate workforce, announced Maura Healey, the state’s Democratic governor. With a target of $10M in public and private money, the fund seeks to help residents access and succeed in high-quality education and workforce programs that prepare them for good-paying jobs as HVAC technicians, EV mechanics, and other in-demand fields.

Skills First
Employers should build experience with skills-based promotion before trying skills-based hiring, Joseph Fuller and Matt Sigelman write in the Harvard Business Review. They also call for a redesign of how firms onboard and support skills-based hires, citing steps Accenture has taken. Even though workers without degrees may have the right hard skills, sometimes they haven’t yet developed the social capital that college graduates have.

Boring Jobs
Large gaps exist between people’s vocational interests and national labor demands, according to a new study from researchers at Michigan State University. The interest gaps generally were larger among workers with lower education levels, suggesting that college can provide more opportunities to achieve an interest fit at work. Even if AI helps to close interest gaps, alignment is skewed enough that many jobs likely will remain boring.

NSF on Job Training
How should community colleges and labor unions partner with R&D organizations and research universities around job training for emerging technology? That’s one of the questions expert speakers will discuss at a June event New America and the National Science Foundation (NSF) will host. Sethuraman Panchanathan, the NSF’s director, is slated to speak at the in-person/virtual event, as is Anne-Marie Slaughter, New America’s CEO.

Childcare Cliff
Widely cited predictions that millions of kids would lose access to childcare as pandemic aid expired did not prove correct, Rachel Cohen reports for Vox. Labor-force participation among working-age women has continued to rise, with gains driven by moms with young children. Jobs in the childcare sector also have continued to expand, notes Cohen, who says doomerism isn’t needed to advocate for families, workers, and kids.

Thanks for reading. I enjoyed this send up of the AI zeitgeist from Aaron Rasmussen, Outlier’s founder. Catch you next week.—PF