I currently work for a rather wonderful academic publishing company called Taylor & Francis (for less than two weeks more now…!) T&F belongs to the parent company Informa PLC, and Informa have a variety of agreements in place to allow their global staff to spend one day a year doing a volunteering project of some sort. I have worked here for 2.5 years and I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t taken advantage of this great opportunity until very recently. It probably sounds terrible to admit it, but the only emails about opportunities I had received from HR seemed to involve digging ponds or helping animals – neither of which are my true passion (although of course both still really great causes.)
A few months ago, however, I got wind of a different kind of volunteering opportunity: spending the day as a corporate volunteer for the Prince’s Trust.
Now, other than knowing that the ‘prince’ in question is Prince Charles, and that it involved young people, I can’t say I knew much about the charity when I first received this email, so off I went to Google and found out the following:
The Prince’s Trust supports 13 to 30 year olds who are unemployed and those struggling at school and at risk of exclusion.
Around one in five young people in the UK are not in work, education or training. Youth unemployment costs the UK economy £10 million a day in lost productivity, while youth crime costs £1 billion every year.
Many of the young people we help are in or leaving care, facing issues such as homelessness or mental health problems, or have been in trouble with the law.
Our programmes give young people the practical and financial support they need to stabilise their lives. We help develop key skills, confidence and motivation, enabling young people to move into work, education or training.
You can read more, and watch a great video about the Trust here.
Among many other things, the Prince’s Trust run 12-week programmes for young people suffering from some of the aforementioned issues, during which they learn about teamwork, develop their confidence, experience a week-long residential together, and complete a week’s work experience. Week 9 out of these 12 is named ‘The World of Work’ and on one of these days, corporate volunteers can sign up to come in and run a day-long workshop on CV Writing and Interview Skills. I’ve not long been in the workplace, and feel like I have a lot of recent experience in tweaking both mine and friends’ CVs, so I thought this kind of volunteering opportunity sounded much more up my street, so I signed up straight away!
That original day was then postponed from November last year until March and so, on Tuesday 10th March, I found myself battling heavy commuter traffic down the A30 to Brooklands College in Ashford (near Staines) to be one of four corporate volunteers on one of these days. To keep things anonymous, I’ll only use initials to talk about my fellow volunteers and the students. We were a team of four volunteers: K, from the Leadership and Learning department at Barclays; M, from the Wealth Management side of the same company; L from HM Revenue & Customs, and me, from little old T&F. We had a conference call a week in advance of the day to hear more about the group of students from their Brooklands College Team Leader, R, and to discuss some finer details about the day. I always think it’s funny to speak to people on the phone, and then meet them in real life, as the person is always a little different to how you imagined!
We were working with a group of 14 young people. (I always feel a bit patronising saying ‘young people’, as some of them weren’t much younger than me, but it’s the term the Prince’s Trust uses, and it’s much better than ‘kids’ so it’s the one I shall persist with!) I hope it’s alright to write a little bit about the young people’s history, to offer some background on the group we were working with: some of them had had brief spells in prison; some had a history of self-harm; some were the primary breadwinners in their families and some had dropped out of school and just struggled ever since. But, that being said, they were a really fantastic bunch for the majority of the day. Of course, there was a lot of distracted chat, and some amusing banter which we had to pretend to be above (!) but, on the whole, they were actually pretty well behaved for us.
Without going through a blow-by-blow account of the day, as my uncontrollable fingers could otherwise be tempted to type, I thought I would pick out some highlights in the hope that it might aspire friends and colleagues to go and give the same kind of day a go!
- Looking the part: The Group’s Team Leader, R, had told them that they were spending the day with some volunteers from big companies and that they should look the part for a practice interview. He had told us separately, however, that he doubted they would wear anything different to usual. We were therefore really impressed to see about half of the class turn up in smart trousers or shoes, if not a full smart outfit. So they were at least prepared to take us semi-seriously!
- Breaking the ice: To get to know the group at the very beginning of the day, we got them to play Two Truths, One Lie. We modelled the game between us, and got the young people to guess which one of our three sentences was made up, which they seemed to enjoy. My three were speaking four languages, having a bionic knee, and having applied to go to Mars – amusingly, they thought the middle one was the false one! (It’s the latter, in case you’re curious!) We then played Twenty Questions with them; giving them twenty chances to guess our first jobs. Some of the questions they asked were hilarious – one girl was determined that one of us ‘must have worked in McDonalds.’ But they guessed them all before they got to twenty, except K’s first job out of university, which was in the army! This really aroused their curiosity and got them interested in what we had to say, which I think was key to the success of the day.
- Personal statements: some of the young people had CVs from the Job Centre, which were a little superficial, so we did an exercise in pepping up, or indeed creating from scratch, the personal statement which appears at the top of a CV. We did some board work on adjectives, and then went round and worked with them in smaller groups to help them incorporate adjectives such as ‘hard-working’ and ‘communicative’ into their statements. For the most part, they seemed to really enjoy this, seeing it almost as an opportunity to advertise themselves. The best part was when we asked for volunteers to read theirs out, and one of the loudest, most confident guys in the class came over all faux-shy and pretended not to want to read his statement out. T, the brilliant Assistant Team Leader who was in the room to sort out behaviour for us, stepped in to read it for him when the rest of the class encouraged him enough, but then after T was finished reading, the whole class gave a little round of applause, which I thought was quite sweet.
- Teaching ideas: after lunch, we wanted to move onto talking about interviews, leaving enough time at the end of the day for each young person to have a little mock interview. The Prince’s Trust programme we had been given in advance had a list of four questions about interviews for discussion, such as ‘How should you prepare yourself before an interview?’, ‘What should you ask at an interview?’ and ‘What might the interviewer ask you?’ Rather than struggle to hold the attention of 14 easily distracted young people at the front of the room some more, I suggested trying an activity I’d recently read about in all my ELT geekery online: starting a brainstorm per group on a piece of A3 paper, and then switching it around every few minutes. This worked really well actually, and by the end of four three-minute rotations, all the sheets had some really good ideas on them, and all members of the little groups seemed to have engaged with each question (with some encouragement from us!)
- Mock interviews: for the last hour or so of the day, the four of us volunteers went off into a separate room and the young people took it in turns to come out to us for a little mock interview. As they sat down with us, we gave them the option to either do a general interview about their Prince’s Trust programme, or to do an interview for a more specific job they were actually keen to do. I had four of the young people come to me, for a variety of jobs including bricklayer, holiday rep and carer for children with special needs. Once the focus of the interview was determined, we sent them outside and then got our acting skills out and went to fetch them, as if it were a real interview: handshake, pleasantries, the lot. What blew us all away, I think, was just how brilliantly the young people responded to this exposure to a real interview situation. For the most part, they sat up straight, they totally changed the way they spoke and they took every question very seriously and came out with some great responses. Of course, there were the shy ones who struggled to abide by one of our key tips, to maintain eye contact, but on the whole, I was staggered by their engagement with our fake questions.
Overall, I feel like I took an incredible amount from the day – it was really rewarding working with a group of young people who have collectively been through quite a lot, and it was great fun working together in a little teaching team with the other volunteers, too. I’m shortly giving up my nice job in the wonderfully friendly world of academic publishing to go and try my hand at teaching, so it was also reassuring to get some great feedback from not only the young people, but also the other volunteers and the Team Leader at the end of the day. I am hoping my grammar knowledge is probably just about good enough to get to grips with teaching the English language to foreigners, but I always worry about not being confident enough to stand up in front of a bunch of people and try and actually impart knowledge on them. But I really enjoyed it – and I certainly hope our input helps the young people get their foot on the career ladder as well!
So please do get involved if you like the sound of the day, I know the Prince’s Trust are really keen for volunteers 🙂