CNX Resources is getting ready to proudly mark its 160th year in Appalachia. Our legacy is built on generations of a thriving and talented workforce and our future will rely on the same.
We are staunch defenders of the region. We will work with anyone to better our communities and economy. We often throw ourselves into the fray if there is a vexing problem where we might offer a solution.
One of our team’s motivational sayings reflecting our action-based culture is, ‘see something, say something, do something.’ Admittedly, there are times we jump the gun and ‘do something’ before fully thinking through the ‘see something’ part. But most times, our proactive instincts have been fruitful for individual employees, company, and region.
A few years ago, we began to ‘see something’: a massive problem in Appalachia.
Young adults, particularly those in underserved communities, are becoming an abandoned demographic when it comes to economic and professional opportunity.
Despite pouring trillions of dollars into education, too much of the public school system is failing the next generation. Young adults not wishing to attend college after high school are often on their own to figure out what comes after high school and how to start a career.
So, we started to ‘say something.’
The company developed an Appalachia First vision for the wider region, targeting economic and career inclusiveness to revive manufacturing and transform global energy markets, with Appalachia at the epicenter. We spoke at western Pennsylvania high schools in urban and rural communities about career paths in energy, building trades, and manufacturing. We invested time and resources into organizations who shared our vision of what could and should be.
But it didn’t take long to figure out that we needed to go further.
When we ‘see something’ and then ‘say something’ without acceptable improvement, it’s time to ‘do something.’
A Simple Yet Daring Idea
That ‘something’ was endeavoring to mentor at scale young adults in urban and rural underserved communities who are exiting high school, don’t wish to immediately attend college, and desire to enter the workforce. The platform became known as the CNX Mentorship Academy, now into our third year.
The effort has provided a spectrum of experiences and emotions that come with a significant commitment to mentoring: joy, stress, failure, success, winning, losing, day-to-day grinds, the big picture, passion, and fits-and-starts. Mentoring is both the most awe inspiring and most frustrating thing a person can get involved with.
The young adults we’re supporting are a critical driver of the future of western Pennsylvania and Appalachia. These individuals intend to stay in the region and start professional journeys that develop personal skills, create opportunity to ‘do,’ provide meaningful employment, and that pay a family-sustaining wage.
A couple of points to consider.
Western Pennsylvania is a special place that offers a spectrum of urban, suburban, and rural communities all within proximity to one another. From the Steel City’s southern suburbs, a short 20-minute drive to the north lands you in the most urban-of-urban areas. And a 30-minute drive to the south places you in the most rural-of-rural areas.
It’s a notable characteristic of western Pennsylvania, and the young adults in those urban and rural zip codes face serious obstacles gaining footholds in the middle class.
Second, Academy students don’t plan to attend college right out of high school. One might argue that’s an astute move these days, considering how poor the return on investment has become for far too many students.
Yet there is little support and scant process to provide understandable and navigable pathways for such students, which is ludicrous considering the great possibilities awaiting them.
Running to Embrace Failure
The need for, and the huge potential rate of return, of an effort such as the CNX Mentorship Academy are obvious. But if it were easy, it would’ve been done by now. We quickly learned it would be far from easy.
The author Valarie Johnson says: “We fall. We break. We fail. But then, we rise. We heal. We overcome.” We’ve learned that her words epitomize mentoring young adults entering the real world.
In hindsight, I suppose we asked for some degree of failure.
Our mentorship initiative was designed from the get-go to be challenging, to the point of frustrating. We were attempting something tangible, which means measurable. We wanted it to be impactful, and we couldn’t think of anything that’s more impactful than assisting the region’s next generation. And we wanted it to be local to our home region of western Pennsylvania.
Tangible, impactful, and local sound great. And different.
But if you take those characteristics to heart in the context of the Mentorship Academy, you begin to understand that success is far from guaranteed. The world for young adults in our urban and rural communities is a constantly changing mosaic of harsh realities that are always in play, wreaking havoc on the ability to smoothly transition a young adult into promising professional career paths.
That’s tough to accept for the successful individuals and entities affiliated with this effort. Failure, or the possibility of it, is scary.
And our toiling would stand out and contrast with the norm. Because many community efforts are often designed more for public relations and optics instead of making a truly tangible, impactful, and local positive difference.
Consider the contrast of two basic approaches to community efforts these days.
The first: the entity or a company presents one of those ridiculously oversized giant posters that look like a check. Everyone has seen these photos. Cut a check, smile, snap the photo, post it to social media, move on. Feel-good, yes. But disconnected and one-time.
I admit that I’ve been guilty of this from time to time. But if it helps promote whatever cause is being supported, what the heck. Yet the impact is fleeting.
The second approach is rarer, yet much more effective: invest yourself by getting your hands dirty and personally intervening to address the challenge or to seize the opportunity. Really commit.
That’s a much more demanding route, but also stands to be hugely rewarding. That’s what we desired with the Mentorship Academy.
After a few years into the Mentorship Academy effort, I attest that the path of hands-on immersion comes with collateral damage. It often results in falling short of aspiration.
But we wouldn’t have it any other way.
The direct immersive approach has made all the difference, to paraphrase Frost’s famous poem of taking the road or path less traveled.
Awareness of Opportunity
There are core objectives to achieve with individual students in the Mentorship Academy. They are telling of the situation facing young adults’ career paths.
A base objective is introducing the careers and professions available in a region like western Pennsylvania that don’t require a college degree. The good news is there are many such pathways. They’re out there and looking for the next generation.
Fortunately, we had exceptional partners from the start. Leaders in the energy industry, manufacturing, the building trades (carpenters, steamfitters, electricians, operating engineers, and laborers), hospitality, real estate, construction, and healthcare to name the big ones.
The bad news is that the young adult typically has little clue of the opportunities or what those jobs and careers entail. This is also an opportunity, one that the Mentorship Academy has seized on behalf of students.
Not knowing what’s out there is not a failing of the student. Instead, it’s an indictment of that ‘system’ referenced earlier that’s failing to enlighten young adults on life changing career paths that don’t require college and are often just down the street.
And some responsibility must also be borne by the industries themselves. For example, the domestic energy industry must do a better job of promoting, communicating, and highlighting the awesome professional paths that exist for young adults out of public high school.
So, we dedicate a group of days through the year’s curriculum to visit various industries and job sites so students see these professions in action, real time. Hands-on activities during the tours are common.
A student quickly figures out the professions that intrigue them and their career awareness IQ skyrockets. Knowledge is power when making life/career decisions.
Assembling the Career Tool Box, One Tool at a Time
Although seeing and learning about different industries and career paths is a key Academy objective, there are other crucial goals. Two important ones are developing resumes and interview preparedness.
For resumes, it’s not only about words on paper, but also working with the individual student to strengthen and fill in the resume with activities, volunteering, references, and accomplishments.
Most high school seniors have only a slight inkling as to what a resume is, and very few know what a good resume looks like. But by the end of an Academy year, young adults have polished and, wouldn’t you know it, impressive resumes. Another challenge transformed into an opportunity.
But a resume is only a start. It gets you noticed over a 20-second look by a recruiter or hiring manager going through hundreds of resumes. That’s important, it’s how you stand out and get to the next step.
But it won’t be enough to get you a job offer. For that you’re going to need to also impress at an interview, which is the next hurdle.
We explain to young adults to think of an interview as if they were learning a language or figuring out an app. You get good at it by doing it. You can talk about it, but until you practice mock interviews, you’re not going to get comfortable performing in the real interview.
So we run each student through mock interviews with their resumes in hand. We ask the obvious questions. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? The student learns how to take a tricky question like weaknesses and answer it in a way that turns it into a positive. Something like, ‘my biggest weakness is that I’m a perfectionist’ or, ‘sometimes I try to take on too much.’
We also discuss how a good resume prompts the interviewer to ask obvious questions. Strategically placing an experience or an interest on your resume that stands out and that is different will serve as a great ice breaker and conversation item in the interview. And the student should be prepared to discuss that topic in the interview; a layup to be ready for.
Finally, students are advised to ask a good question or two during the interview. Something applicable to the job, company, or industry that demonstrates the applicant performed due diligence preparing and is genuinely interested.
And one also needs to be properly dressed for the interview to land that job.
We talk about researching the dress code of the company/location, and then dressing in attire that fits the culture. This means each student needs at least one professional outfit for interviews. Thus, we provide each student with an outfit. It’s a highlight of the year; seeing a student come into the day’s event in jeans and a hoodie and then suddenly seeing them transformed individually and as a group. Clothes prove to be quite a confidence builder.
There is another objective of the curriculum that we had no clue of going into the effort, but quickly emerged within a few months into the first year’s journey: paperwork.
Many young adults in underserved communities lack the necessary paperwork needed to land a meaningful job. The best example is a driver’s license. No driver’s license, no ability to fill out a job application, and thus no job. Doesn’t matter if the applicant has an awesome resume and interviews well.
The logical step is to help the student get through the driver’s license process. Easy, right? Wrong.
Because that requires more…paperwork. Birth certificates, social security cards, health physicals, consents, and so on. And everything with the paperwork needs to be just so, since the government DMV is not what you would consider to be the most flexible organization and it doesn’t exactly embrace the customer service mentality.
Most high school seniors don’t have their paperwork in any semblance of order. And getting it to that point can be complicated and time consuming. But if the student aspires to land the job that sets them on a career path, the paperwork challenge must be met. We invest the time and endure the frustration of getting all that paperwork in order, student by student.
It’s another example of how bureaucracy (and its associated paperwork) can stifle individual achievement.
There is a silver lining with the hoops we jump through with paperwork: it provides opportunities to bond with the student outside of the normal Mentorship Academy curriculum.
If you want to get to know someone, spend an hour with them waiting in line at the DMV.
Lines at the DMV, if used as social networking platforms, would render social media and apps obsolete.
Network and the Confidence Game
As important as immersion into different industries, a resume, interview skills, professional attire, and a driver’s license are, there are two even more important items of value in the Academy’s curriculum for the student. Two intangibles.
The first is that the student exits the Academy with an impressively powerful network. Over the course of the year, they meet the leaders of companies and industries across the region, including those who do the hiring and in some instances the CEOs of the businesses or entities. That’s the benefit of having great partners to participate alongside you in the effort.
That network is one to be envied by seasoned professionals, let alone by high school seniors. It’s a huge leg up that can keep paying dividends for the individual young professional to the extent that they’re willing to invest time to properly utilize it.
And the second crucial takeaway for the student is, in a word: confidence.
Confidence at the age of 18 is powerful. And lack of confidence at age 18 can be debilitating—particularly when it comes to career.
A year of the Academy builds a reservoir of confidence that manifests in resume, demeanor, first impressions, and pursuing career paths. Confidence might be, in the end, the most important ingredient that the Mentorship Academy provides.
To succeed in this endeavor and instill that confidence, support beyond the day or so spent with students each month during the formal curriculum is vital. So what about the other 28 or 29 days in a month?
That’s where mentors come into play. The mentors are the glue that holds everything together. After spending a day or two each month diving deep into our curriculum, off the students go back into the unforgiving and difficult real world.
Finding ways to keep students tethered when life is rearing its head is the mentors’ focus. We have mentors who are community leaders alongside mentors who are within the organizations and companies that participate in the effort. Experience shows you need, and want, both.
Mentors are essential to:
- Building personal connections to the students—important when inevitably something arises in life with the student;
- Helping shepherd students through the curriculum and the year to get the most out of the Academy; and,
- Establishing a close mentor-student connection to ensure a tailored path for each student that matches interests, needs, and situation.
This is far from a one size fits all effort, and flexibility and nimbleness are keys to success.
No mentors, no success. It’s that simple.
The Next Level
Success raises the topic of scale. If we are experiencing success with an individual student or a small group of students, then the quicker and the more efficiently we can scale and grow the effort, the more tangible and impactful it will be on the local region.
We talk about the Academy to raise awareness so that more people get involved.
You’re welcome to copy it. You’re welcome to join it. And you’re welcome to learn more about it. You don’t have to steal the playbook, ask and we will give it to you.
If you wish to join the effort, nominate a student, or replicate what we’ve built, find more information on the CNX Mentorship Academy at https://www.cnx.com/about-us/the_mentorship-academy.
We are scaling. Our first year was around 30 students, last year had just over 40, and the third-year class is kicking off with close to 80 students.
Unbelievably, we are now measuring our cumulative impact in the hundreds of young adults. But what if we could take that to the thousands and across regions beyond western Pennsylvania? That’s where you might come in if you want to replicate or join the effort.
Back to Reality
A sober dose of truth is in order.
Young adults course a journey of growth that comes in fits and spurts. Sometimes it’s one step forward and two steps back. And their world doesn’t make it any easier, whether urban or rural.
Not every student is going to exit the Academy exactly where we hoped at the start. And not every student is going to be prepared for ‘career primetime’ at the end of the year.
We adjusted to that reality, and we continue to do so. It’s humbling and makes you think.
But we can say without hesitation that every student who enters the Academy and shows up over the course of the year will be in a markedly better place with life skills, awareness, and confidence by the end.
It all comes down to how one defines success. It’s measured in different ways…in this thing we call life. I wish it were more ideal, but this is how it is.
Back to the author Valarie Johnson: “We fall. We break. We fail. But then, we rise. We heal. We overcome.”
That’s mentoring young adults in western Pennsylvania in 2023. But we discovered that if we stick to it, we win. And so does the region.