Hays’ Karen Young discusses the role employers can play in helping the next generation take the first steps of their career journey amid the challenges of Covid-19.
One of the lasting legacies of Covid-19 will be the unprecedented experience of young people who looked for, or started, their very first job during this pandemic. The ‘lockdown generation’ of school and university leavers will enter the world of work in a very different way to those that are training or supporting them.
While the roll-out of vaccines has begun in some countries and economies begin to recover, it remains to be seen how much of the new normal in the world of work will become permanent. The long-term effects of the pandemic to society and the economy will only become clear in time. Until then, how can organisations ensure they’re supporting the next generation of talent, and help them to feel positive about their first step on the career ladder?
There’s no doubt the lockdown generation is facing challenges in this area, with internship offers withdrawn and many first-time employees furloughed or made redundant. Graduate job numbers fell in 21 countries due to Covid-19, according to the 2020 global report from the Institute of Student Employers, with eight geographies, including Ireland, Hong Kong and South Africa, cutting graduate jobs by at least 15pc.
And it isn’t just graduates who have been affected. The number of available apprenticeships in England between 23 March and 31 July 2020 was down 46pc compared to the same period in 2019, says the UK government’s Department for Education.
While the most obvious way employers can help is to continue graduate and intern recruitment, apprenticeships and other training, the Covid-enforced working-from-home culture faced by many is a game changer for onboarding new starters.
Many employers have been proactive in adapting to lockdown and social distancing requirements by creating virtual internships, hosting online inductions for new starters and turning previously in-person graduate training schemes into fully digital ones.
But Prof Christine Naschberger of French business school Audencia warned that although younger people are accustomed to online interaction, virtual onboarding still brings challenges. “It may be difficult to understand the company culture, and what the company expects from them in terms of performance and behaviour,” she said.
“Communication with their new line manager may be different because they cannot simply knock on the door if they have questions. Managers and HR professionals need to be proactive and reach out to the fresh starters to help them integrate.”
So, what can organisations do to support the lockdown generation, and help them to build their careers?
Rethink your mentoring strategy
Lauren Stiller Rikleen, founder and president at the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, is a US-based expert on developing a multigenerational workforce. “Employers should consider thoughtfully designed programmes to assist with this generation’s adjustment to the professional world,” she said. “In particular, there will need to be a greater focus on intergenerational mentoring and support.
“Workplaces should strengthen their stress management programmes to operate at the employee, workplace and organisational levels. This could include, for example, early-career affinity groups that encourage open conversation in a supportive environment and coaching interventions to prevent minor performance challenges from having long-term implications.”
Sandy Wilkie, co-director at Greenhill HR, said HR teams and senior managers should be working hard to ensure new starters flourish. “It’s key to put more effort into regular and engaging conversations with new starters leading up to their start date. Ask them what and who they think they need to know and build this into a tailored onboarding or induction plan that blends face-to-face and online meetings.
“When they have joined, ask them how they feel on a regular basis and invite them to participate in daily check-ins so they feel supported and can highlight any problems they’re having.”
Find new ways to assess young talent
If an organisation decides it will take on first-job recruits, how can it spot talent among a cohort of young people who might have unconventional educational or employment track records due to the disruption of Covid-19?
Harjiv Singh is CEO of BrainGain Global, an online hub aimed at higher education students, primarily in south Asia. He said organisations can look for the alternative forms of development young candidates may have undertaken, as some may have gained transferable skills.
“Organisations that are smart will look to see how individuals navigated the pandemic – despite the disruption, did they find a way to learn a new skill, make new connections or work on something pro bono in an area that they are passionate about? This shows resilience and someone who is not deterred by challenges.”
He also advised that if an organisation wants to attract young talent, it should better understand what the lockdown generation is looking for in an employer. “Young employees coming into an organisation want it to be supportive of their personal career growth and provide opportunities to learn new skills and gain experience.
“It’s also crucial to build a strong employer brand. Next-generation candidates gravitate toward career opportunities that strike a strong work-life balance and offer a sense of purpose. They’re also drawn to organisations that embrace professional freedom, innovation and flexibility.”
Consider a ‘bumper year’ of young talent
Many organisations, such as accountancy and financial services firms, base much of their talent strategy around the progression of entry-level employees who gain qualifications on the job. These businesses now face the additional challenge of returning to a regular training cycle. So, what are they doing to secure their talent pipeline?
Matt Rawlins, director of sales and account management at accountancy and financial services training company Kaplan, said: “In the absence of maintaining a pipeline, it’s predicted that the business will suffer in five to 10 years, due to a skills gap caused by the current talent moving up within the hierarchy, with no pool of talent to replace it.
“They may also fail to demonstrate the diversity candidates and clients expect in an organisation.”
Rawlins warned that, in the longer term, this may lead to organisations needing to recruit more senior staff, increasing hiring costs and negatively affecting progression. “It’s certainly worth considering filling the gap with a bumper year of recruits or trainees,” he said. “A delay of a year won’t hugely affect a business’s talent pipeline. However, if the ‘hole’ is not plugged quickly, the impact will be extrapolated.”
And once these talent gaps are filled, what can organisations do to ensure that training is adequate for these entry-level employees, even if working remotely? Simply replicating training that was once done in person online won’t be engaging for those taking part. Remote training has come a long way since its inception. There are now a huge variety of different models, tools and platforms that are worth exploring. Consider which is most straightforward for new hires or junior staff.
I would also recommend incorporating a variety of learning materials. Entry-level employees will need to absorb a lot of knowledge about the role and your organisation, so cater to all learning styles and preferences by ensuring that the delivery of the training (albeit remote) is diverse and interesting.
Finally, measure your results. Which aspects you track will depend on the goal of the training, but it will help you understand the comprehension and capabilities of your entry-level employees.
Explore government support
Employers don’t have to do it all on their own – they can look to government subsidies for help recruiting the next generation of talent. The Hong Kong Monetary Authority introduced a $1.4m subsidy plan in 2020 to pay half the salaries of 300 university graduates hired by banks and other financial services firms in the region.
The French government is spending €6.5m to encourage companies to hire young unemployed people through financial incentives. And in China, the central government helped set up online recruitment platforms featuring job postings for graduates, while the regional government in Hubei province, the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak, created more public sector jobs for graduates and increased funding to help SMEs hire graduates.
But across all sectors, Wilkie said there will inevitably be a backlog of 2020 graduates who have not found an appropriate level role, or any job. “They will swell the ranks of those 2021 graduates looking for work and I expect many vacancies to be heavily oversubscribed.”
Whatever the availability of jobs in 2021 and beyond, he said some of the pandemic-enforced changes in the way young people experience their introduction to the world of work will outlast the pandemic.
“To some extent, Covid-19 has accelerated what was already happening. Face-to-face interaction isn’t going to disappear and will always be necessary, but many of the developments we’ve seen in virtual learning and recruitment are here to stay.”
By Karen Young
Karen Young is the director of Hays Accountancy and Finance in the UK and Ireland. A version of this article originally appeared on Hays’ Viewpoint blog.