The pandemic has had a number of dramatic and long-lasting impacts on the labour market and employment landscape. Evolving and reskilling in accordance with these changes will be essential for businesses and their staff to successfully build on the coming recovery from both COVID-19 and Brexit.
However, a potentially greater issue than any other is one that has not even hit our workplaces yet; the impact that COVID-19 has had, and is still having, on the young adults that employers across the region will be recruiting and onboarding during 2021 and 2022. This is an issue that is in danger of being overlooked, but an increased volume of entry level candidates on the job market, coupled with fewer organisations hiring, means that it is important businesses acknowledge this problem and act to ensure a generation of young adults is not left behind.
For over 25 years I have been training young adults at the start of their careers, as well as maintaining long-lasting relationships with schools and colleges across East Anglia. In the last twelve months I have been closely following the impact of the pandemic on the next cohort of school and college leavers, and the challenges raised for recruiting for entry level positions in 2021 and beyond. This article, along with the CBI’s In Discussion with Matthew Percival, Director of People and Skills event on 7 June, will offer some insight into what employers can expect from young adults during the recruitment process, and more importantly what they can do to help their transition into the workplace.
Skills gaps in the ‘COVID-19 generation’
The last six months have made it clear that the UK’s post-COVID-19, post-Brexit future will require a huge focus on developing human capital at a time when relentless change makes choosing clear priorities extremely difficult. The new challenges businesses are facing due to the pandemic in managing hybrid working, motivating teams remotely, ‘talent flight’ from staff on lengthy periods of furlough, embracing emerging digital and green technologies, as well as shifting focus to mental health and workplace wellbeing amongst staff has been well documented.
The impact the pandemic has had on recruiting for entry level roles, however, has so far had little attention. Feedback from employers already underway with entry level recruitment for Autumn 2021 is that both the volume and the calibre of applicants they are seeing is higher than ever before. There are however concerning indications that whilst academic ability seems as strong as ever, there is evidence of ‘COVID-19 skills gaps’ in areas that recruiters normally take for granted. Many employers are also reporting that many applicants they are seeing left education in 2020 and have been in limbo since, raising the likelihood that there will be a greater imbalance than normal between the number of hopeful candidates and the number of available roles.
There is little doubt that COVID-19 has had an unequal impact on everyone, least of all on young adults who will have experienced very different responses by their schools, unequal access to remote technology and varying home situations.
What issues are impacting the COVID-19 generation?
- No formal exams: With widespread cancellation of exams during 2020 and 2021 there is growing ‘grade scepticism’ amongst employers who are unsure how reliable or consistent teacher-assessed results will be. Preparing for and sitting formal exams is a crucial way of learning the discipline of coping with workload, deadlines and pressure. Subsequent success in those exams is important for personal confidence and sense of worth.
- Loss of social and interpersonal skills: After spending the majority of the last year in their homes, many young adults have not had normal opportunities to develop communication and teamworking skills. Part-time jobs in customer-facing, dynamic environments where many basic life skills are learned have not been available. The skills that young people normally develop in these roles can be essential for boosting young adults’ professional confidence and help develop self-awareness.
- Articulating and evidencing transferable skills: It seems that many schools have done a good job of ensuring that home-schooling students have covered core academic curriculum content, but it equally seems that many extra-curricular activities such as organising plays and leading sports teams have understandably fallen away. This, coupled with the lack of part-time jobs, has made it hard for students to evidence transferable skills in their CV’s, applications and interviews.
- Lack of interview preparation: Employer engagement, careers insight and opportunities for mock interviews have been far harder to organise during the pandemic. Students have not been coached for interviews in the way they normally would be, and are proving to be unaware of what they can do to secure a role. For example, researching the organisation they are interviewing for, preparing questions of their own, and following up afterwards for feedback.
What you can do as an employer
Cambridgeshire-based Form The Future, who works to develop relationships between school students and employers, shared what they recommend employers should do to assist the COVID-19 generation into employment during a recent First Intuition Think Tank forum. Here are a few things employers can do and implement into long-term business planning to help overcome the issues faced by the younger generation:
- Virtual work-experience: Employers should offer more virtual work experience, career advice and careers resources to help young adults gain the employability skills they have been unable to get during the pandemic, specifically local schools in their area.
- More ‘scaffolding’ for applicants: Employers can assist candidates by giving them more information and stating what they are looking for in applications (scaffolding) to help students show what they are capable of. They can also give them interview tasks that let their natural skills shine such as practical or project assessments and role play.
- A more personalised approach to recruitment: Recruits should be considered on an individual basis as candidates will not have been impacted in the same way, this is especially true for disadvantaged students. Recruitment therefore may need a more tailored approach going forward with less focus on grades and more consideration for their situation at home, family responsibilities, and personal health.
- Mentor schemes for new starters: New employees can benefit greatly from mentoring and peer support in place to help them adjust to the workplace, particularly when paired with other young and relatable employees. This is beneficial for gaining new skills for both parties involved.
Take action and adapt to the changing world of work
The pandemic has created a rare and unique opportunity to positively change the workplace. It will be important for businesses to adapt to the new working world, one where HR is key to the future, and employers help candidates show their skills throughout the recruitment process. The skills gaps in the COVID-19 generation are a looming issue that should be acknowledged and addressed now, as the impacts of the pandemic are predicted to ripple through the education system for several years.
Join the CBI’s In Discussion with Matthew Percival, Director of People and Skills on 7 June to delve deeper into how the pandemic has impacted young adult’s preparedness for the workplace and what you can do to make a difference. Additionally, First Intuition will be hosting another talk discussing onboarding the COVID-19 generation on 9 June.