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Career Academies UK

aspire... accelerate... achieve...

transform a young person's life chances through learning

David Zell, Zell Associates Ltd

I first became involved with the Career Academy programme via my daughter, who is Head of Corporate Responsibility at the law firm Olswang. She has been working with the programme for quite a while, as Olswang offer internships, workplace visits and Partners in Business (PiBs). She told me that spaces were vacant on the Local Advisory Board at Greenshaw High School in Sutton, close to where I live. As I had more time on my hands having recently retired after a long stint in banking, she suggested that I might want to get involved. I jumped at the chance and ended up becoming Chair!

In addition to my board duties, I felt it important to get frontline experience of the programme's work, so decided to become a Partner in Business and mentor a student on a one-to-one basis. I had been a senior manager in banking and Managing Director at the last bank I worked for, so was used to having a lot of younger people under my wing, particularly graduates. The role of a mentor therefore came quite naturally.

The PiB programme is well structured and there are clear guidelines which give you an idea about what each meeting should cover, in case you are stuck for something to discuss. My mentee Neermal and I continue to meet regularly and over time have built up an open and constructive relationship.

The challenge I faced when we first met was how to remove potential generation barriers - having recently turned 60, I'm probably older than his parents and also from a very different cultural background. We achieved that through the amazing medium of football! One of the first meetings with your student has to be a fun day out, so as an avid Queens Park Rangers supporter I decided to take him along to a football match. He had never been to a professional game before, so it was a wonderful experience for him and we had great fun together - all the more as QPR won!

The thing he found the most challenging, and that we have worked hard to tackle, is time management - in particular how to navigate the London transport system and make it to meetings on time. On our second meeting he turned up rather late because he got lost on the underground, so I had to be patient and help him find his way. He has now learned to plan travel meticulously, allow himself plenty of time for his journey and think carefully about how to get there, making sure he has at least one alternative route planned to take account for train or tube lines being down. Neermal has made amazing improvements on that score. Overall I think PiBs are great for teaching those basic but crucial life skills.

I have benefitted from the satisfaction of seeing an enormous transformation in Neermal. Last summer he did his internship at Morgan Stanley and when he came to do his final presentation. He was really nervous, so I had to spend some time calming him down beforehand. However when he pulled it off without stammering for a second, he suddenly opened up and talked with confidence. He was suited and booted and looked like he'd worked there for six months not six weeks. I just thought wow - I'd heard about transformations like that but seeing it for myself was incredibly rewarding. He really impressed everyone and I sat there glowing with pride.  From my experience on the Local Advisory Board, I have seen other Career Academy students make similar huge improvements too. I've seen them change from being often shy, awkward and sometimes cynical about the benefits of taking part, to being confident and overwhelmingly positive.

When I started to meet with Neermal, I soon discovered that there is a big difference between working with graduates and Career Academy students. Graduate recruits in banking tend to have had experiences of business at a young age, mainly through family connections, work experience etc. In contrast, Neermal hadn't ever been exposed to the professional workplace other than temping at McDonalds before he joined the Career Academy programme. By the way, I impressed on him that that was nothing to be reticent about, as it also demonstrated teamwork! I was used to working with young people with a higher academic success profile who had been given many more opportunities, compared with most Career Academy students.

When I signed up I knew that I was going to be dealing with young people from possibly less privileged backgrounds but I still had to recalibrate my expectations after the first couple of sessions. Things I'd normally take for granted, such as instinctive drive and alertness, weren't apparent at first, so I had to learn to be more patient. Overall though that difference didn't bother me; after all, teenagers, whatever their background, face the same challenge - to successfully make the transition from being a child to an adult and look positively toward a future working life.