How work will be different for young professionals—and their employers—because of the coronavirus pandemic

May 22, 2020, 3:00 PM UTC
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With a historic 38.6 million jobs lost in just nine weeks, the coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc on the labor market. 

As the class of 2020 graduates into that uncertain professional landscape, both those new grads and the companies hiring them face quite a bit of work to adapt and create the opportunities and culture that both employees and employers need to thrive.

For a new hire, starting a career virtually means it’s much harder to get a feel for the work and to immerse oneself in the culture of a company, said Miecha Ranea Forbes, senior vice president of culture, inclusion, and strategic advising at executive search and consulting firm Koya Leadership Partners. And that lack of connection can start a career off on the wrong foot.

“Statistics show that the more engaged a person is in the organization, the culture, and the work, the more likely it is they’re going to be retained for a long period of time,” Forbes said. “Even through bumps like a pandemic.”

One of the biggest challenges Forbes said she encounters in her work, which often includes helping companies engage their workforce virtually, is getting employees and employers to understand that a workforce doesn’t have to be together in person to build relationships and an engaging culture. Forbes stressed that remote work can be meaningful and enjoyable if employers are “intentional”  with new hires from the start—planning their training thoughtfully before their first day, slotting time for them to meet one-on-one via video chat with mentors, and encouraging friendships between coworkers. 

Scott Dettman, CEO of “education to work” platform Avenica, which specializes in matching job seekers with entry-level career opportunities, said that, as companies focus on this new way of work, they will likely take a closer look at how effective their recruiting and talent evaluation tools are. 

The criteria on which job applicants are measured will change, too, Dettman said. For instance, many employers have traditionally given a lot of weight to in-person interview performance, but now remote work will force them to cast their gaze elsewhere. 

Dettman predicts that companies will focus on finding self-starters with the ability to independently manage themselves, rather than zeroing in on the most charismatic interviewees. He also said that analysis of digital presence and social media profiles will be increasingly important in lieu of in-person evaluation.

Corporations have also begun to question whether a lot of their automated tools and algorithms are evaluating talent as well as they could be, he said. Often, those tools scan résumés for language that matches the job posting, allowing applicants to tailor their résumés to the description, Dettman said. But that doesn’t always lead employers to the best person for the job. Perhaps the bots aren’t really picking out the best applicants after all. 

“The environment’s changed, the dynamics have changed, and people are weighting things differently,” Dettman said. “I think in some ways, it’s kind of opening their eyes to maybe they haven’t set up these pieces all that well.”

For those new grads who haven’t secured postgrad work, the bounce back will be slower than for the rest of the economy, Dettman said. Younger professionals can expect to see a year or so of challenges owing to a larger pool of unemployed people racing to any job they can get, he said, resulting in over-skilled, more experienced workers taking the entry-level positions that 2020 grads want. 

Those challenges will likely result in a cohort of workers taking jobs in fields they never expected to be working in, because they have to be more open-minded to find jobs, according to Stephanie Worden, assistant director of undergraduate recruitment at Syracuse’s School of Information Studies. She, too, graduated in an economic downturn, finishing college during the Great Recession.

“My message to the class of 2020 would be, you gotta hustle a little bit differently,” Worden said. “Having a positive attitude and entering into different sectors with the skills that you have, being a digital native, will help organizations and will help people, but you have to have an open mind.” 

In the time between now and when hiring picks up again, Dettman said he expects to see a bend toward virtual work that leads to even more competition, since location will have less to do with viability. There will also be a lot of cost-cutting as companies realize that the streamlining of their organizations necessitated by the pandemic didn’t disrupt work or productivity nearly as much as expected, he said. For example, companies will likely keep many roles remote, cutting down on transportation costs and the price of rent for larger offices. And those remote roles, Dettman said, can be filled by people living in locations with a lower cost of living, helping companies reduce salary costs, as well. 

Aside from that, though, the entry-level recruitment expert said he expects professional life for recent grads to return to normal relatively quickly. He expects the flow of entry-level job openings to resume fairly rapidly, something that didn’t happen for millennials graduating into the cataclysmic job market of the late 2000s. 

And once that flow returns, young professionals will be looking for different things in an employer than they were pre-pandemic. Worden said that she’s already seen an uptick in students emphasizing company benefits, ranging from health care to stipends for moving expenses and Wi-Fi. She said these used to be much lower on the priority list for her students, with salary taking the top spot.

“A couple years ago, they weren’t really thinking stability, because the pay rate was so high. But with the anxiety now, I think we’re shifting,” Worden said.

Dettman predicts that job seekers will also focus more on company values in the wake of this crisis. The generation graduating from college over the next few years has emphasized social responsibility for a while, prioritizing companies with strong missions that align with their values.  For this demographic group, how a business helped its employees and communities through this moment in history will carry even more weight, he said. 

“Students are looking at companies and saying, ‘Are they doing things to be part of the solution, or are they contributing to the problem?’ So I think there’s a brand judgment that’s happening,” Dettman said.

With both employers and prospective employees questioning the norms in recruitment, hiring, and company culture, the only thing that’s certain as the world navigates this crisis is that professional life is going to change.