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null Four ways to support new talent through the challenges of COVID-19


support new talent through the challenges of COVID-19

The COVID-era cohort of school and university leavers are facing unique challenges entering the world of work. What role can employers play in helping the next generation take the first steps of their career journey?

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.

Graduates and school leavers face a challenging time

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There’s no doubt the ‘lockdown generation’ is facing challenges in this area, with internship offers withdrawn and many first-time employees furloughed or made redundant.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 (ISE), with eight geographies, including Ireland, Hong Kong SAR and South Africa, cutting graduate jobs by 15 per cent.

And it isn’t just graduates who have been affected: the number of available apprenticeships in England in 2020 was down 46 per cent compared with the same period in 2019, says the UK Government’s Department for Education.

Furthermore, a global survey from the International Labour Organization found that one in six young people aged 18-29 (17.4 per cent) had stopped working since the beginning of the crisis. The figure climbs to 23.1 per cent when restricted to the 18-24 category alone.

Why organisations need to rebuild their onboarding processes

However, with organisations focused on battling the pandemic’s negative impact on business, why should they assign valuable resources to reach out to first-job recruits? “Taking on apprentices or graduates might not be high on some HR teams’ to-do lists,” says Stephen Isherwood, Chief Executive at the ISE. “But this could be something businesses live to regret. Employers need to think about how they will build a pipeline of talent coming through the organisation – talent they’ll need when the economy recovers.”

Besides that practical consideration, some business leaders feel they also have a social responsibility to invest in the next generation. Technology entrepreneur Daniel Cooper, based in Cambridge in the UK, has set up the Lolly Foundation to provide graduates and school leavers with free training courses. “Numerous firms already have specific pledges that go beyond profit, like commitments to reduce their carbon footprint,” he says. “It’s time to commit to a new one – hiring from the lockdown generation.”

While the most obvious way employers can help is to continue graduate and intern recruitment, apprenticeships and other training, the COVID-19 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 Professor Christine Naschberger, of French business school Audencia, warns 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.

“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.”

What’s more, employers will need to show compassion to the challenges this generation have faced. Being unemployed at a young age can have long-lasting “scarring effects” in terms of career paths and future earnings, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. And a UNICEF report published in December 2020 says that, for many young people, COVID-19 is “still making it more difficult to integrate into the labour market”.

Four ways you can support the next generation of talent

So, what can organisations do to support the ‘lockdown generation’, and help them to build their careers?

1. Rethink your mentoring strategy

Lauren Stiller Rikleen, President at the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, is a US-based expert on developing a multi-generational workforce. “Employers should consider thoughtfully designed programmes to assist with this generation’s adjustment to the professional world,” she says. “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, says 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.”

Wilkie agrees that intergenerational mentoring is important – and that it can benefit both mentor and mentee. “Reverse mentoring, or co-mentoring as I prefer to term it, can help a new graduate worker learn about behaviours, culture and organisational politics, while their more workplace experienced co-mentor can learn about new technologies, for example.”

And Rikleen adds “By having to cope with a change of life as they knew it, the next generation of employees may enter the workplace with a greater level of empathy and adaptability, qualities that are critical components of emotional intelligence and important to effective leadership. Employers can build on these skills by offering training programmes for young employees that will develop these leadership qualities from the outset of their careers.”

2. 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 says 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 advises 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.”

3. 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?

Starting on a positive note, over half (54 per cent) of accountancy and finance employers in the UK tell us that they plan to hire new staff in 2021. This is actually a touch higher than last year (50 per cent). But while hiring remains on the agenda, there is more involved when it comes maintaining a pipeline of new talent.

Matt Rawlins, Director of accountancy and financial services training company Kaplan, expands, “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,” he says. “They may also fail to demonstrate the diversity candidates and clients expect in an organisation.”

Rawlins warns 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 says. “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.

4. 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 HK$10.8 million 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 €6.5 million to encourage companies to hire youngsters 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.

Meanwhile in the UK, the Government launched the Kickstart Scheme, which provides funding to employers to create job placements for 16 to 24-year-olds on Universal Credit. Looking at the impact on entry-level hiring for 2021, those industries most affected by the pandemic, including hospitality, leisure and travel, will most probably recruit less than other industries.

But across all sectors, Wilkie believes there will inevitably be a backlog of 2020 graduates who have not found an appropriate level, or any, job. “They will swell the ranks of those 2021 graduates looking for work and I expect many vacancies to be heavily over-subscribed. The economies that have been worst hit by COVID-19 – the USA and UK for instance – face far more long-term issues than the likes of New Zealand, Australia, China and Germany.” Whatever the availability of jobs in 2021 and beyond, he believes 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.”



Karen Young
Director, Hays UK

Karen is responsible for the UK finance recruitment business at Hays plc. With nearly 22 years of recruitment experience whilst working for this market leading global recruitment firm, Karen has a personal track record of recruiting top finance talent for business and helping people build their career.

Her knowledge covers finance appointments across a wide range of industry sectors and she is an expert in tried and tested talent acquisition methods. Karen provides strategic leadership to a team of over 400 accountancy and finance recruitment professionals across a network of almost 100 UK offices. Extremely passionate about helping people to find the right job, she is also a trusted industry voice on career planning and market insights.