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VOL. 126 | NO. 207 | Monday, October 24, 2011

Shared Success

Mentoring programs aim to empower – and retain – next generation

By Aisling Maki

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Talent acquisition and retention and an ongoing focus on sustainable workforce development are vital to the economic success of any city. And in Memphis – a city beleaguered by high rates of poverty and unemployment – long-term strategies aimed at building that workforce are now targeting future workers as young as middle school students.

Alexandra Roll, right, accompanies students from Power Center Academy on a visit to Choosing to Participate, a nationally acclaimed exhibit and civic initiative at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. Corporate mentoring is designed to engage local students, prepare them for college and beyond, and ensure they return to Memphis for their careers. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Already home to Fortune 500 companies like FedEx Corp., AutoZone Inc. and International Paper Co., the Bluff City continues to attract new employers. Recent additions to Memphis include Electrolux, Mitsubishi Electric Power Products Inc. and the Great American Steamboat Co., all of which recently committed to providing local jobs in a city with a huge hidden potential workforce.

The city’s civilian labor workforce amounts to more than 611,000 individuals, of whom more than 61,000, or 10 percent, are unemployed, while more than 177,000 are underemployed, according to figures from the Greater Memphis Chamber.

In terms of interest in training, both employed and unemployed Memphians report having the most interest in medical-related fields – a natural and viable match given the city’s robust health care industry, which includes a host of hospitals and several medical device-making companies.

An aging American population will drive the demand for improved medical devices and equipment developed by skilled biomedical engineers. The employment forecast for engineers is sunny, projected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations, with starting salaries among the highest of all college graduates, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Mentor Bobby Downs chats with Malik Brown, 13, of Power Center Academy during a visit to Choosing to Participate, a nationally acclaimed exhibit and civic initiative at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Through 2018 biomedical engineers are projected to see the fastest job growth rate at 72 percent, and can expect to earn a median wage of $77,400.

Medical device-making giants Smith & Nephew and Medtronic Inc. both are based elsewhere, but they have a visible corporate presence in Memphis. The firms have developed focused strategies to build social capital through their senior and executive level employees, who are developing long-term relationships with some of the city’s brightest students who’ve shown a strong interest in math, science and technology but are often underserved.

Smith & Nephew is bolstering school-based corporate mentoring with the launch of its Scholars Program, a long-term initiative dedicated to cultivating and nurturing the talent of Memphis’ middle and high school students focused on careers in medical technology and business.

The program, which is the first of its kind for the company’s Memphis-based Orthopedic Reconstruction and Trauma division, engages 25 students in grades eight through 12 for up to five years of mentoring, networking and internships leading up to their departure for college.

“Probably one of the most exciting developments over the last year is the increased interest in mentoring coming from the corporate community,” said Jenny Koltnow, executive director of the Memphis Grizzlies Charitable Foundation, the NBA team’s charitable affiliate, which focuses on serving at-risk Memphis youth and the organizations that support them.

“And you see that with Smith & Nephew’s Scholars Program, where Smith & Nephew decided they were going to develop a new program from scratch, engage their employees, and match them with kids in local middle and high schools in order to make sure these kids have the tools and exposure they need to not only improve their current academic performance, but to really give them an edge while they’re in college and after, when they pursue their careers.”

The hope is that at least some of those students will return to Memphis with college degrees and opt to not only settle down in the city but take ownership of it and continue the cycle of mentorship. The Scholars Program was developed with the help of the Memphis Grizzlies Charitable Foundation’s TEAM UP Youth Mentoring initiative, whose goal is to recruit and retain volunteer mentors and expand youth mentoring in the Memphis area.

Alyssa Ailsworth, 15, of Power Center Academy looks at an image of Elizabeth Eckford of the LIttle Rock Nine during a trip with the Memphis Grizzlies Charitable Foundation’s Team Up program to a Choosing to Participate exhibit. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

“You cannot throw money at this issue; you’ve got to get hands-on and engage your employees and a meaningful way,” Koltnow said. “You see more organizations recognizing that this is a way to really strengthen local talent. It’s not just about preventing kids from slipping through the cracks; this is about giving them exposure and experiences, and an idea of what things could be like if they’re willing to put in the effort. And they have someone to stand by their side, encourage them and help them acquire the skills and the tools they need to be successful and pursue their desired careers.”

The Scholars Program draws from the best and brightest of three Memphis charter schools: Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering, Memphis Academy of Health Sciences and the Knowledge Is Power Program.

“We chose those schools because it allowed us to pick up a smaller-scale and very controllable segment of the public education system that we could manage perhaps better than just going out there into the city and county school system,” said Dave Carlson, Smith & Nephew director of internal communications and community relations.

The initial idea to develop the program arose from insight provided by a Washington-based African-American orthopedic surgeon employed by Smith & Nephew, who largely attributed his success to his mentor. Memphis, a minority-majority city with a strong health care sector, seemed the perfect fit to implement such a mentor-driven model.

Students – who are largely African-American and from underserved communities – enrolled in participating schools, are paired for one-on-one mentoring with a company executive who will provide real-world insights and training that go well beyond the classroom experience.Mentors meet with students in a school setting several times a month, and students participate throughout the year in outside activities and events ranging from philanthropic ventures to social excursions such as Memphis Grizzlies games.

Meanwhile, employees at Medtronic, a global medical device maker whose Spinal and Biologics business is based at 1800 Pyramid Place in Memphis, are engaging the next generation of engineers and scientists to ensure continued success in health care innovation and research and a continuing pipeline of Mid-South innovators. The company sponsors several local high school teams annually in the FIRST! Robotics Competition. The international contest’s goal is to inspire students to choose careers in engineering by offering them real-world experience through designing and building robots under the guidance of experienced engineers, like Monica Burt at Medtronic.

“My whole personal drive when it comes to mentoring is to remember that all of us got to where we are not only because of personal drive, but because of the people in our lives and the relationships we had,” said Burt, who works with students in Cordova High School’s Robotics Program and is involved in several mentoring projects throughout the city.

Medtronic employees guide budding engineers through the ins and outs of the industry, from marketing and communications and project management to engineering and computer programming.

“Really, you’re able to touch on all of those things and cultivate students who have skills that would satisfy those types of needs for our business here,” Burt said. “It’s not just about building a robot; it’s about building their personal brand, marketing the sponsors, getting out and generating fundraising and things of that nature. The process of building these robots is really time-consuming, so there’s about eight months of activities that all need to be planned.”

Burt said she’s gained great satisfaction in mentoring another segment of the population that’s historically been underserved in terms of math, science and technology education and opportunities: girls.

“Girls don’t always have technology-minded people in their homes and in their lives as far as mentoring and support is concerned,” she said. “Because of that they were very interested in me and my experience. I had a mentoring partner from Medtronic who’s also female, and they were just so receptive to us and so inquisitive and excited about the fact that we were people just like them … and we’re able to build successful science and technology careers here for ourselves in Memphis. That’s one of the main reasons that I wanted to participate in this. When I was in high school, I was fortunate to have some really great mentors, but none of those were women.”

Burt also said she believes Memphis is on the right path to empowering a strong, innovative future workforce that will continue to invest in its city.

“Memphis is doing a really great job,” she said. “There are a lot of nonprofits that are doing a great job to get people interested in staying here. And our local businesses are really stepping up to the plate to make sure that people want to come back to Memphis after college, or at least know that it’s a possibility. I think as a city, we’re headed in the right direction.”

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