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Skills HR will need in 2021: Rethinking early careers

10 Dec 2020 By Maggie Baska

The under-25s have been hit especially hard by the impact of Covid – but there is still an imperative for people professionals to focus on young talent post pandemic

Starting out in your first job is nerve wracking at the best of times. But it’s even more terrifying when your first foray into the world of work coincides with a global pandemic. And the figures show that young people have been some of the worst affected by the economic repercussions of Covid-19. 

A study by academics from the London School of Economics and Political Science and Exeter University, for example, found young people in the UK are more than twice as likely to lose their jobs because of the economic fallout from the pandemic, compared to older workers. More than one in 10 (11 per cent) of those aged 16 to 25 who had been working in January and February had lost their job by September or October, in contrast to fewer than half that number (4.6 per cent) for those aged 26 and over – and more than half (58 per cent) of young people also saw a fall in their earnings, compared to 42 per cent across the rest of the working population.

And while budgets for recruitment and training are either tight or non-existent, and offices remain shut for the foreseeable future, taking on apprentices or graduates might not be high on some HR teams’ to-do lists. But this – say experts – could be something businesses live to regret, with the repercussions of neglecting this area as severe as for the young people whose employment prospects have suffered so drastically this year.

It’s crucial for employers to consider their long-term talent needs even in challenging times such as recession, according to Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Institute of Student Employers. “Employers need to think about how they will build a pipeline of talent coming through the organisation, particularly when it comes to early talent, in two to five years’ time,” he says. “They’ll especially need that talent for when the upturn in the recession hits.”

He acknowledges it can be hard to “make the case” for talent when there are more immediate business concerns, but companies will have to balance the “real pragmatics of running an organisation in the here and now” against the issues around coronavirus. “In three years’ time, when we experience the upswing, you need to consider what will happen when you can’t find enough people – particularly at junior manager level – and what that costs to find those workers or in lost work by not having them in the business,” he says.

Isherwood brings encouraging news, however, of those employers that have been proactive on this front. Many have adapted 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, he says.

Also potentially encouraging is the government’s contribution on this issue, with chancellor Rishi Sunak putting together a £2bn package to support new jobs and work experience earlier this year. As part of this, the much-heralded Kickstart scheme opened in November, which offers to fully fund six-month work placements of up to 25 hours per week for young people on universal credit. And businesses are also being provided with grants of up to £2,500 for each new apprenticeship they create before January 2021. Sunak also plans to triple the number of traineeship placements available, and organisations will receive £1,000 for each one they provide.

Lizzie Crowley, senior skills policy adviser at the CIPD, says HR should seriously consider such government schemes and support mechanisms. “As well as Kickstart and the apprenticeship and traineeship incentives, there’s also the continued rollout of the T-level scheme in England, essentially providing young people with an alternative route into the labour market,” she says.

Beyond government-subsidised programmes, HR professionals should think creatively about how they build relationships with local colleges and universities, which could provide a sustained supply of talent, Crowley says. “There is something to be said about building relationships with local colleges in the current climate. You might not be able to support full-time employment opportunities, but you could potentially provide placements so young people can get experience,” she says.

“Opening up opportunities for placements can really help your business because you’re building local relationships that also have a supply of talent that you can tap into at a later date when demand does begin to pick up and you’re able to offer employment opportunities.”

Rethinking how they approach accessing, training and developing graduate talent is also a critical activity for employers currently, Isherwood says. He reports that in the early days of the pandemic, many employers and training providers were able to change their predominantly face-to-face programmes to completely online models. “We’ve come to a bit of a happy medium where some employers have been able to use a hybrid approach, blending in-person and virtual training,” he adds. “I think we’ll see more employers using this method in the coming year.”

Helen Booth, director of the HomeServe Foundation – the not-for-profit arm of domestic repairs company HomeServe – says employers will have to be agile in how they adapt their training programmes in response to the ever-changing working climate. Data published by the Department for Education (DfE) in October revealed apprenticeships have dropped by almost half compared to last year, and the HomeServe Foundation has campaigned for more to be done to support this route to employment and build the skills the UK will need for its economy recovery in the wake of the pandemic.

Between 23 March – when lockdown hit – and 31 July 2020, the DfE reported that there had been 58,160 apprenticeship starts, fewer than the 107,750 reported for this period at this point last year – a decrease of 46 per cent. However, the DfE said the final data would not become available until later in the year. So it remains unclear what the true impact of lockdown has been on the number of apprenticeship starts this year. 

Booth explains providers will need to be able to ‘flex’ and respond to businesses at a time when many are vulnerable because of the pandemic. “We need to create more flexible learning and give regular feedback on what is and isn’t working so employers know what’s going on,” she says. And with Brexit just around the corner, Booth highlights the importance of employers recognising that they are not going to be able to easily recruit from overseas, so need to “take responsibility for growing and developing [their] own talent”.

Alongside growing talent closer to home, businesses should use the pandemic as an opportunity to approach hiring younger candidates more inclusively, Isherwood says. Again, there are encouraging signs of some organisations doing just this. In October, some of Britain’s largest employers backed a campaign to collectively take on 2,000 black interns every year over the next five years. The campaign – prompted by the success of the investment management industry’s 100 Black Interns initiative earlier this year – aims to create a “sustainable, growing expansion in the quality and quantity of opportunities for black people in the UK”. Credit Suisse, PwC, Zurich Insurance, consultancy Russell Reynolds and law firm Linklaters are among the firms that have signed up.

LGBT+ media outlet PinkNews has also jumped in to help businesses rethink how they access diverse young talent. In October, the publication hosted its sixth annual PinkNews Futures, an online conference for LGBT+ young people that connects them with potential employers and ensures they have the skills to successfully job hunt. Companies involved included IBM, Snapchat, Sony Music, Royal London and Baillie Gifford. 

Alex Ehmcke, PinkNews’s operations and people director, says LGBT+ graduates are having a hard time entering the job market – which was already difficult before the pandemic. But, he explains, the careers fair saw a huge uptake of new employer partners interested in recruiting LGBT+ young people, and the pandemic has led to more firms in the tech, data and renewable energy fields coming on board. “I don’t think it helps anyone to just have a fallow year where no one is talking or hiring,” Ehmcke says. “Those conversations and connections need to be had for the future.”


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