Providing employees with mentors and sponsors would help them reach their full potential — and shrink America's skills gap. Pixabay

Americans lack the skills to succeed in the modern economy. At least, that's what nine in ten business leaders told staffing firm Adecco in a recent survey. Career-focused colleges and universities are working to close this gap by teaching in-demand skills in areas like nursing, computer programming and business administration. This technical know-how is hugely important and helps people land job offers.

But once they're in the workforce, these folks sometimes struggle due to a lack of soft skills. Companies can solve this problem themselves by encouraging new hires to seek out mentors, who are generally at a similar level in the company, as well as sponsors, who are typically several positions above their protégées within the organization. Some firms even proactively pair recruits with more experienced employees who show them the ropes. Such arrangements help younger workers climb the corporate ladder and boost company productivity.

I have experienced the power of sponsorship firsthand. When I worked at RLJ Companies, its founder Bob Johnson sponsored me and gave me opportunities to manage complex banking relationships and deals with companies like Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank. Those experiences gave me the skills and confidence I needed to advance my career.

Now I'm the CEO at a leading global education group. In my role, I mentor a number of young people. And as the only African-American female chief executive of a Fortune 1000 company, I feel a special responsibility to mentor and sponsor women — particularly those from minority backgrounds — to help them achieve the sort of professional success I've enjoyed. I take immense satisfaction in witnessing all of my mentees' professional progression and personal growth.

Mentors and sponsors help younger workers in complementary but distinct ways. Sponsors vouch for their people and help them obtain career-building assignments. For instance, a director of nursing at a major teaching hospital might advocate on behalf of a young nurse practitioner who wants to lead a clinical trial.

And these relationships aren't a one-way street — mentors and sponsors benefit too. For instance, younger employees often offer insights on newer technologies that older workers might not have mastered.

Currently, most Americans have to seek out their own mentors and sponsors. Only a quarter of U.S. companies have a peer-mentoring program. And fewer than two in ten employees at large companies have a sponsor. That's unfortunate.

On average, mentored employees produce higher-quality work and feel better about their companies than workers without mentors, according to a Journal of Vocational Behavior meta-analysis of thousands of studies. And men and women with sponsors are, respectively, 13 and 8 percentage points more likely to request a challenging assignment from a manager than those without sponsors.

Mentorship opportunities are particularly helpful for women and minority groups. In a survey of 1,000 employees conducted by the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, three in 10 women and minority respondents found mentorship programs to be extremely helpful to their careers, compared to only two in 10 men. Another study in the Harvard Business Review discovered that mentorship programs increased female and minority participation in management by 9 to 24 percent.

The few companies that offer mentorship and sponsorship programs have found them to be immensely successful, such as Citi, a global financial services company. Back in 2009, the company paired 59 female managing directors with firm partners. Each quarter, employees met with their sponsors to discuss career goals and potential areas of improvement. Participants could also shadow their sponsors and attend important meetings. In less than a year, nearly half of the employees had received a promotion or new job responsibilities.

Or take the Career Watch program at Ernst & Young, an accounting and consulting company. The initiative identifies high-performing minority and female employees, pinpoints their weakest skill areas, and matches them with a partner who can help refine these skills. Since the program began in the 1990s, promotion rates for women and minorities have skyrocketed.

Many young professionals don't receive enough guidance and support. Providing these folks with mentors and sponsors would help them reach their full potential — and shrink America's skills gap.

Lisa W. Wardell is the President and CEO of Adtalem Global Education.