Recruitment of the ‘COVID generation’ brings a new set of challenges for young adults entering the workplace, as well as for the employers hiring them. For the first time since WWII, there are massive changes to the way students study, are assessed, and in turn the skills they bring to the workplace. We believe it is important for employers to have information about these changes to ensure candidates are successful and the right recruit is hired.
Gareth invited a balanced panel of guest speakers, representing both students’ and employers’ perspectives on the topic. Exploring the impacts on the different parties involved, speakers discussed their answers to the following questions:
Questions for candidate representatives: Form the Future and Long Road Sixth Form College
1. What has the next generation of school and college leavers missed out on over the past 11 months compared to usual cohorts?
2. Which skills might these school leavers be lacking when employers encounter them?
3. What can employers do in their recruitment processes to help support these young adults to overcome some of the skills gaps and give the best impression of themselves?
Questions to the employer discussion panel: AstraZeneca, CBI, and Leeds City Council
From either your own experiences or from employers you talk to, have recent recruits already shown any skill deficits compared to normal school and college leavers?
1. Conversely, have any recent recruits shown any stronger skills since the start of the pandemic?
2. What allowances in recruitment have already been necessary to allow for these skills deficits?
3. What else can be done to plug these skills deficits when young adults join the workplace?
4. What advice would you give to employers who are currently undertaking their recruitment process?
Below are some highlight comments from the forum. You can watch the full recording of the forum by clicking the button below.
Top 10 Takeaway Points
- Employers should offer more virtual work experience and careers resources to help the COVID generation gain employability skills
- 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
- Students should be encouraged to think about relating their skills in interviews that have not been gained in the workplace
- Employers could assist candidates by giving them ‘more scaffolding’ in applications to help students show what they are capable of. They can also give them tasks that let their natural skills shine, or give candidates a trial run
- Mentoring can be beneficial for both new starters and the mentoree
- Employers should not catastrophise the situation and should continue to encourage young adults into the workplace
- Local employers can help schools in their area by providing career help and resources
- Schools should tell all students about the apprenticeship route after school and college
- Being more mindful of students needs may make the workplace more attractive, discouraging students to simply follow the university pathway
- Promoting social activity in the workplace would help change the belief that university is the only way to gain those experiences
Candidate Representative: Anne Bailey, CEO and Co-founder of Form the Future
Anne helps young people to prepare for their careers, introducing them to different industries and jobs. Anne found that schools have had to squeeze their curriculum and cut careers resources since March 2020. For instance, Form the Future spoke to less than 5,000 students in the last year compared to the usual 20,000. Employers haven’t had the chance to go into schools let alone offer work experience; thousands of work experience placements have disappeared. Exposure to careers is too important for young people to miss out on, it’s too great a risk. Students can’t be what they can’t see.
A big impact on the COVID generation has been mental health. The opportunity to have a ‘terminal exam’ as a reflection on their progress and their futures has been swept out from under year 11’s and 13’s causing huge anxiety and uncertainty. Furthermore, part-time jobs in customer-facing, dynamic environments haven’t been available. These can be the making of young adults and a big boost to their confidence and developing self-awareness. There haven’t even been opportunities to evidence transferable skills such as teamwork through playing on a sports team, or organisational ability by holding a play.
Anne recommends that employers’ give ‘more scaffolding’ to help students better conduct themselves in interviews and stand out in a competitive job market. This includes allowing candidates to reach further back to link to examples of transferable skills. Furthermore, students should be taught how to talk about the transferable skills they have developed during the pandemic, like time management, working alone, and using online programmes. Interviews can favour extroverts and employers should give tasks and ‘work trials’ that favour the natural skills of introverts. Additionally, new starters could be paired with other young and relatable employees as mentors who can offer support.
Candidate Representative: Steve Dann, Vice President of Long Road Sixth Form College
Steve Dann, Vice President of a college of 2,500 students doing a range of level qualifications, gave insight from the perspective of the student. Steve believes the effects of the pandemic is going to ripple through the education system for several years. He states that it is likely to be younger children who are the most affected, impacting reading and writing. This is particularly the case for disadvantaged children. College students have been in the education system for most of their life and are more resilient to change. The educational impact is minimal compared to the effect on interpersonal skills.
2020’s college leavers had learned the majority of the syllabus by the time the first lockdown started. 2021′ college leavers will have had two academic years of disrupted learning, particularly in 2021. They have also missed out on the usual way of being assessed and graded through exams. This uncertainty and unfamiliarity has helped contribute to mental health problems, as well as changed the relationship between student and teacher. Teachers assess students based on their work throughout the year, meaning every piece of work is now held against them.
However, Steve does report that some benefits have come out of the changes to learning over the past year. Some students have thrived as they have gained extra hours in the day by not commuting. As well as able to work in their own time instead of around a teacher’s schedule, and generally had fewer distractions.
Steve advises that employers should not catastrophise the situation and should continue to encourage the COVID generation into the workplace. Employers should be wary about how grades are predicted in 2021 as it is still not yet confirmed how students will be assessed.
Employer Representative: Emma Wood, Talent Acquisition Partner at AstraZeneca
Emma reported that AstraZeneca has not seen any skills deficits in the young adults they are recruiting in 2021. They have seen a huge rise in applicant numbers for this round of recruitment with double the applications than usual and great feedback from virtual events they have hosted. However, she believes we will not see the full extent of the impacts of COVID-19 for a couple of years yet.
Mental health again came up as a top concern for the COVID generation. Students worry they will have nothing to show for their years of education without exams. Employers and teachers should be encouraging young adults to see the other benefits and years of hard work have brought for them. Including a strong work ethic and self-motivation that is essential in the workplace.
Emma agrees that there is going to be a considerable lack of work experience in candidates’ applications. She encourages recruits to think outside the box when discussing their skills without work experience. For example, helping someone in the community, or managing workload when studying at home.
Employer Representative: Alex Hall-Chen, Education Policy Advisor at CBI
Similar to Emma, Alex has not seen too much impact on this year’s cohort of recruits’ skills, she agrees it is likely to be more of a problem for next year. She is more concerned that the COVID generation will be lacking soft skills rather than subject knowledge. Soft skills like communication, time-management, problem-solving, and team working are what employers really look out for when recruiting. Students may also choose not to take education further due to their lost learning, which would help gap some of those missed skill bridges.
Alex advises that employers consider that no young person will have had their learning disrupted in the same way. Recruitment therefore may need a more tailored approach going forward. She also believes that new employees would benefit greatly from mentoring and peer support in place to help students adjust. Engagement with government programmes with learning on the job could be powerful in overcoming some of the issues.
Employer Representative: Tracey Greig, Employment and Skills Senior Manager at Leeds City Council
Tracey has seen a considerably larger number of students attending their virtual careers festival, implying they are thinking about employment opportunities. She says the main missing skills have been a lack of confidence and issues with resilience.
Some employers may be looking at GCSE grades instead of A-Level for comparison purposes and understanding a candidate’s capabilities. However, local employers can help schools in their area by providing career help. Including helping to put together a CV, virtual work experience, online interview preparation, and other employability skills to help young adults build a virtual portfolio. Equally, businesses can help young adults with interview preparation so that they can show the best of themselves.
This has proved invaluable for students when implemented in the past and can be great for a company’s brand identity. Employers should give students the opportunities to gain alternative skills to bring to their applications other than work experience. Tracey also argues all students should be introduced to apprenticeships, not just those who are unlikely to go to university.
Awarding Bodies Representatives:
Sophie Shepard, AAT
Sophie at AAT comments that as a small employer, recruitment has been lower than normal with notably lower quality applicants. They are looking at adapting how they assess their new recruits accordingly, with competency interviews and tests that can assess the skills candidates might have but are not visible in a CV or interview. Employers should be prepared for gaps in CVs, recognising why it there and looking for potential. As well as taking into consideration external factors like limited access to WiFi and computers when assessing applicants. It must also be remembered that some people will never have actually been in a physical office environment.
Lucy Randall, ICAEW
Lucy from ICAEW points out that employers should be mindful of judgement about the COVID generation and those who have not achieved as much throughout lockdown. Sometimes just surviving is enough. It is therefore important to get to know how the candidate is as an individual. How you question students is going to be important to avoid unconscious bias.
Aleksandra Zaronina, ACCA
Aleksandra from ACCA agrees with this more personal and tailored approach. It will be important going forward for employers to look at employees on an individual basis as they will suffer from differing gaps in knowledge. As well as different perceptions of work, and differing wellbeing and mental health concerns. Furthermore, younger employees and the COVID generation are tending to jump to technology for solutions rather than their accountancy training. Employers, therefore, need to think about bridging the skills gap between different ages. Inter-generational coaching can offer big benefits for both parties.
Trevor Robertshaw, CIMA
Trevor from CIMA argues that he has seen resilience in students who have been able to adapt quickly to the move to online exams with no change to pass rates. He agrees that the benefits of mentoring programmes are notable for both the mentor and mentoree.
Further Comments from the Audience
More applicants and lack of work experience
On the whole, members of the audience agree that a larger number of applicants have come in this year than usual. Not only are CVs more likely to lack work experience, but applicants are also coming from further afield. Furthermore, a large number of applicants graduated in 2020 and are now starting their career a year later than they would have done. Perhaps because they were unable to find a grad role last year.
Fewer careers events
Some employers have found they haven’t had as much interest from local schools with regards to careers events. One employer notes they normally help schools with interview and advice sessions but have done none this year. As a result, they have not seen as many school leaver applicants as yet. Schools do appear to have prioritised getting students through online learning and careers events have been pushed back. CV building and general awareness of apprenticeships and alternative routes into employment seems to be lacking still in many schools. There are however lots of insight programmes and resources available virtually to provide career information.
The COVID generation does have some advantages they can articulate to employers. The ability to cope with online working, study, and socialising without requiring excessive or disproportionate hand-holding and time investment from line managers. Demonstrating that they can be trusted to be efficient, effective and economical in terms of their work.
Concern for wellbeing
The audience agrees that wellbeing is a major concern as remote working can be a challenge to younger people, and often domestic arrangements may not be ideal for home working. Lack of social engagement without the office environment is cited as a major issue. Similarly, the anxiety of constant assessment and therefore the requirement for high performance on an ongoing basis is as well. However, a positive is that this form of assessment is more replicated in the workplace so maybe better for preparing students. It may open up a conversation to change the current exam system that can be an unreliable way to test performance.
Widening the disparity gap
With a move to online, digital exclusion and how some young people have limited access to computers and WiFi is likely to become a bigger problem. This will greater impact students from low SES backgrounds putting them at a further disadvantage. More widely, the impact of lost learning has been greater already for disadvantaged groups; if that isn’t explicitly accounted for in recruitment then workforce diversity may suffer.