UP Career Mentorship Programme goes from strength to strength

Posted on November 30, 2020

The transition from student to employee can be daunting, and frequently there’s a lack of work-readiness and guidance, which can place young graduates at a disadvantage as they enter the world of work. At a recent virtual event for mentors and mentees, Professor Norman Duncan explained that this dilemma inspired the University of Pretoria (UP) to launch the Career Mentorship Programme to facilitate an easier transition and build a mutually beneficial relationship for both employer and employee. 

The UP Career Mentorship Programme was piloted last year and has since gone from strength to strength. What started with 32 final-year students, or mentees, from the School of Engineering and 24 mentors during the programme’s pilot phase last year, quickly snowballed to 66 mentees and 55 mentors this year. The key difference between last year and this year’s programme is the increase in the programme’s reach. This year’s programme saw students from two faculties participating, whereas last year, only students from a single department within a faculty participated. The Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology and the Faculty of Theology and Religion were two of UP’s faculties that participated this year, and the vision is to have students from all of UP’s faculties participating in future.

Initially, the plan was for mentors to meet their mentees in person at least twice in the year, and for the mentees to be afforded an opportunity to shadow their mentors at their respective places of employment. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic extinguished any hopes of those plans coming to fruition. Instead, mentors and mentees had to rely on virtual meetings for their discussions.

Dr Martina Jordaan, who is the head of community-based research and postgraduate studies at UP’s Mamelodi Campus, serves as the programme’s coordinator and organised the recent virtual function. The programme is, however, Prof Duncan’s brainchild and he was invited to be the keynote speaker on the night. In his speech, Prof Duncan contextualised the Career Mentorship Programme and explained why it was launched.

Mentor Paul Ssali, Professor Norman Duncan and mentee Keitumetsi Mokoena at a celebration to mark the complete of the pilot run of the Career Mentorship Programme last year.

“We believe we have reached a stage in society, not only in South Africa, but internationally, where a degree alone will no longer guarantee employment or a thriving career,” says Prof Duncan, who is the Vice-Principal: Academic at UP. “In a South African context, we know that UP graduates find employment very soon after graduation. In fact, 93% of our graduates, across the board, find employment soon after graduating. This is not the case in the rest of the country, for other universities and internationally. In South Africa of course, while it is fairly easy for UP graduates to find employment, we cannot guarantee that this will be the case in 10 years’ time. A degree certificate on its own will one day not guarantee employment. One will need so much more to find employment. It is for this reason that we decided to launch the UP Career Mentorship Programme to give our students a bit of a leg up,” Prof Duncan explained.

Prof Duncan highlighted the benefits of mentoring for both mentors and mentees and was unequivocal about the value that building a vast network adds to a person’s professional life and urged the mentees to constantly hone their networking skills.

“Mentoring provides the mentee with an opportunity to connect with established professionals in their field and to start building their professional networks,” Prof Duncan said. “We can perform and excel in everything we do at university, but the minute we enter the workplace, we tend to find ourselves entering a foreign domain, especially when we have not completed an internship. It is useful to rely on networks that can help one adjust within the workplace.”

Prof Duncan acknowledged that mentees stand to benefit more from mentoring, but in the same breath, was quick to point out that mentors also derive value from these relationships.

“Mentors have the opportunity to gain exposure to new perspectives, specifically the perspectives of newly-graduated or soon-to-graduate young professionals,” he said. “Moreover, through these relationships, mentors are afforded the opportunity to further strengthen their leadership and coaching styles.”

One of the mentors was asked to reflect on the programme and its effectiveness and to share his thoughts with the audience. Paul Ssali, who mentored three students last year and two students this year, suggested that, as things stand now, the gap between university and industry does not do graduates any favours when they start their professional careers.

“It is critical that the gap between university and industry is bridged and this initiative is spot-on when it comes to doing that,” says Ssali, who is a mechanical engineer at Zutari; the director of Engineers Without Borders South Africa; and a member of UP’s Convocation Advisory Board. “The knowledge, tools and skill sets required in industry are constantly changing. The information we used last year and the information we are using this year is not the same and the kind of technologies we have adapted to help expedite the processes we are currently using are constantly changing. At times, we get graduates who come into our workforce and we feel that gap.”

- Author Kaya Nocanda

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