Youth don’t know how to find services — especially mentorship — online. We have a solution.

MENTOR Canada, in partnership with Find Help/211, United Way Centraide Canada, Magnet, and the Government of Canada’s Youth Employment and Skills Strategy, is developing a tool to make finding supports much easier for young people — and there’s much other sectors could learn from it, too.

Why It Matters

Young people who are mentored are 53 percent more likely to report good mental health, and more than twice as likely to report a strong sense of belonging in their community. But a majority of young people surveyed by MENTOR Canada said they didn’t know how to find a mentor online.

This story is in partnership with MENTOR Canada. 

Young people can find almost anything they need online — except mentorship. 

That’s what youth participants interviewed for our 2020 Mapping the Mentoring Gap research initiative told us.

“I think there is a big need for a portal that people can access to find a mentor, because I feel it’s very hard to find a mentor nowadays. So, I think it’s important to have a system or like a central hub where people can go so that they can find their needs and stuff,” one young person said. “One big problem for programs is a lack of visibility. It took me days to find [a mentoring] program and it was almost hidden on some website,” said another.

This feedback left us at MENTOR Canada wondering how we might recreate digitally the in-person experience that youth facing complex problems would have if they met their employment service provider, career counsellor, or mentor in real life. 

We were having these conversations just as COVID-19 began making the news.

The massive social disruption brought by the pandemic revealed deep, long standing societal cracks that politicians, policy makers, business leaders, and the social sector are now being compelled to confront. As the pandemic hit, young people in Canada moved online, seeking support for education, employment, mentoring, mental health and social isolation. This placed a spotlight on the economic, regional and other disparities impacting a young person’s ability to access support online, often called the ‘digital divide.’

As we emerge from the pandemic, political leaders at all levels have committed to tackling these challenges, with promises of cheaper, more reliable Internet and programs to support digital literacy and technology. But even if we solve these challenges, will youth find what they need when they log on? And will service providers be able to connect with those who need them most? The answer, for many young people — particularly for those seeking or needing mentoring — is no. This has dire impacts for our next generation of leaders, many of whom risk being left behind.  

The pandemic experience has reinforced the challenge faced by service providers in offering services through virtual platforms. Youth who are facing barriers often need assistance in identifying the right kind of support to address their needs as well as how to look for the right resources online — in other words, they’re not sure where to start. However, human-facing service providers, such as youth employment centres, post-secondary education institutions, and youth-serving agencies, often lack the budget or the human resources to overcome the commingling technical and marketing challenges to making their services easily discovered and accessed digitally. 

To help close the gap, this year we are leading a pilot involving government, policy makers, the private sector, and social impact organizations to connect service provider and partner websites and data in a centralized, secure platform. We asked ourselves: As a sector, how can we tackle the challenge of connecting young people to the employment services and holistic supports they need in a way that is intuitive, and doesn’t rely on the algorithms driven by large search engines like Google? We came up with CORDS.

The idea behind CORDS (Contextual Opportunities and Resources Distribution System) is to streamline and simplify access to youth employment services for youth and families in Canada and increase networking/partnerships among organizations in the social services sector. At its core, CORDS would support (it’s still in development) the implementation of a ‘no wrong door’ policy for digital touchpoints, weaving together opportunities and resources from different web-based sources for presentation to youth on the websites and web-based systems they use. What does this mean in plain language? 

Think of CORDS as the Amazon for the social services sector. If you search for a tent on Amazon, chances are a sleeping bag will become a suggested item. With CORDS, using any search engine, if you search for “jobs” you would likely be referred to local job boards, and job posting but also you would be offered resume writing services, referral to a local employment center, and/or a career mentoring program in your area. This is happening in the background, without the user even knowing CORDS is making these connections.

These days, it’s rare to start an internet search and find what exactly you need on the first click. Each additional step you have to take in finding what you need reduces your motivation to keep looking for it. The odds of failure increase if the path is made longer or more arduous because you’re not sure what you’re looking for or what you’re looking for is hard to find.  Perhaps nobody has explicitly considered you in targeting content so what you are looking for might not be easy to find. 

This is how many youth feel when they start browsing online looking for guidance on career pathways and employment. They’ve never been exposed to the terminology that describes what they need, like skills training or mentoring, or they don’t even know it exists so they’re limited to looking for related things, like jobs. Sometimes the organizations with the service or information they need don’t have the resources to make it easily findable or youth lack the digital literacy to hunt around.  All these challenges — in addition to the various barriers that make searching extra difficult, like a poor Internet connection, limited access to a device, or a lack of privacy — are more likely to occur for young people facing multiple barriers. 

CORDS (re-)attaches the opportunities and resources scattered around the web and serves up relevant opportunities and resources to youth using the platforms they’re most likely to access.  It ‘serves up’ what youth need, much like a retailer will suggest a sweater or shoes to go with the pants you’re looking for on their site. CORDS replicates that intuitive shopping experience young people have come to expect with the social supports and programs they need.   

Sounds straightforward? From a technology perspective, it is. From a sector perspective, it’s a bit more complex. Technically it is possible to connect data sets from different human facing services in the youth employment sector. But there is a lack of understanding and trust among human-facing service providers about the value of CORDS and how the platform and technology would work. There is also concern and skepticism from organizations about allowing their websites and platforms to be connected with one another. While there are similar, small-scale collaboration efforts taking place, they are happening in silos and without coordination and communication across the sector. No large-scale collaboration effort has been tried before. 

This is where the social impact sector comes in. We need to take the big leap to closing the digital divide to accessing youth employment services, including mentoring, online. 

In the post-pandemic era, as policymakers and funders remove barriers to accessing services online, we need to be ready to work collaboratively to serve opportunities to all young people. This will require trust and collaboration among youth employment service providers, mentoring programs and organizations, buy-in from our funders, and thought leadership from social impact change makers to make this vision a reality. Ultimately, our vision is to make finding the right supports and programs as quick and easy for young people as finding a great shirt to match their new pants.