Graduate jobs after the pandemic: ‘I’m only an email address to my team’

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In her kitchen in the southern English county of Surrey, a young graduate is boiling water for a Pot Noodle. It is a familiar scene, but a far from typical situation. Holly Hetherington is testing new ingredients, flavours and food textures as part of her first graduate trainee role at Unilever. But after nine months of remote working, she is hungry for something other than instant noodles: face-to-face teamwork.

Hetherington, who joined the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods group in September 2020, has had to come to terms with taking her first steps on the career ladder working from the home she shares with a teacher, rather than among colleagues in the company’s UK office, some 20 miles away in the town of Leatherhead. “The team are always talking about how normally we would be going out to factories and trying the products,” says Hetherington, an assistant brand manager. “Now I just get a package in the post and I [decide] the recipes in the kitchen.”

Yet the 23-year-old is one of the luckier ones. As the pandemic spread, unemployment rose and many graduate job openings disappeared.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) in the US found that, in 2020, 7.8 per cent of employers revoked job offers and 20 per cent cancelled internships. In the UK, according to one survey of nearly 5,000 graduates, 28 per cent of third-year students’ job offers were deferred or rescinded.

According to Burning Glass Technologies, a labour market analytics company, entry-level job postings in the US, UK and Canada slumped during the pandemic and, while they have recovered in 2021, the number of adverts for such roles is still running below the level in spring 2019. Data for the UK and US show recovery is even more anaemic for jobs advertised with education requirements below degree-level.

Globally, a recent International Labour Organization report said workers aged 15-24 had suffered an employment decline almost 2.5 times greater than that experienced by older age groups, as a result of the crisis.

Demand for good entry-level jobs has also increased. At Unilever, the competition became increasingly fierce last year as graduates sought safe havens at established employers, spurring a 27 per cent increase in applications to more than 367,000 for 1,500 places as an intern, apprentice or graduate trainee.

In response, employers have developed online inductions, training and mentoring. “It’s been easier and harder than I thought it was going to be,” says Hetherington, about starting down this uncharted path into working life. At Unilever, the introductory week for about 150 new entrants included an hour of virtual interaction with chief executive Alan Jope, as well as online social events including cocktail-making, cookery lessons and clue-solving “escape room” games. Yet Hetherington is acutely aware she is missing other aspects of working life. “It’s always hard to build a broader network virtually.”

Leena Nair, Unilever’s chief human resources officer, says: “It is the young people who feel the most miserable about this, they want to come into work, they want to meet other people . . . I’m worried about how we ensure they get all the support they need.”

Portrait of David Solomon, chief executive of Goldman Sachs
Goldman Sachs chief executive David Solomon, who said earlier this year: ‘I don’t want another class of young people . . . that aren’t getting more direct contact’ © Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

‘A big deal in terms of accessibility’

The disruption suffered by new recruits at big employers is, in some respects, the same as that experienced by all staff forced into remote working. The solutions sound similar, too: more communication, better feedback, closer and more sympathetic interaction with managers. Some employers believe graduates, often more adaptable than their older colleagues, will have picked up new skills and will continue positive aspects of the remote work experiment, even when social distancing rules are lifted.

But senior executives express concerns about this lockdown cohort: that the extraordinary disruption of 2020-21 will have blasted holes in their training, their networks and their confidence, stunting their development to such a degree that intakes from subsequent years may overtake them, particularly when it comes to building internal networks.

This was articulated by David Solomon, chief executive of Goldman Sachs, earlier this year: “I don’t want another class of young people arriving [remotely] that aren’t getting more direct contact, direct apprenticeship, direct mentorship.”

Critics derided his comments as favouring long hours and presenteeism over flexibility. Yet the sentiment resonated beyond the banking sector. Charlie Ball, senior consultant in labour market intelligence at Joint Information Systems Committee, a UK-based non-profit technology provider, says: “It’s notable that when you look at concerns [about remote work], the youngest cohort are most vocal . . . about not getting to grips with company culture and how to learn on the job.” 

“We can’t deny we’re not worried” about the 2020 cohort of recruits, says Janine Glasenberg, head of graduate recruitment for the Emea region at Goldman Sachs. Video-conferencing has enabled junior workers to have more exposure to senior leaders and the bank has encouraged more connection between new graduate entrants and interns to offset any loss of face-to-face contact.

But Laura Hinton, UK head of people at professional services firm PwC, says: “I’m very conscious that those people who have joined us in the last year have missed out on some important interactions . . . A lot of that is about the network and the feeling of being part of a cohort beyond your immediate team.”

Portrait of Laura Hinton, PwC UK’s head of people
Laura Hinton, UK head of people at PwC, says recent recruits have missed out on important interactions: ‘A lot of that is about the feeling of being part of a cohort beyond your immediate team’ © PwC

The pandemic forced employers to move their graduate and internship programmes online at speed. 

Rahul Guha, managing director and recruiting chair at Boston Consulting Group in India, says the firm “really amped up online” its one-week orientation programme for recruits. Senior leaders devoted almost three times as many hours as they used to spend with new arrivals when the programme took place in the office. 

When the connection is online only, it means working “twice as hard to get the same level of engagement”, says Guha. “You don’t have a water cooler or a coffee machine, or drinks after work or all of these opportunities to build your network . . . We had to create as many opportunities through structured processes as would have been created organically [before the pandemic].”

Line chart of US entry-level postings, moving average (’000) showing The crisis hit US entry-level jobs but the market has rebounded

At Unilever, graduates were given virtual tours of the offices, research and development facilities and factories. After the pandemic hit, PwC’s UK arm took just 12 weeks to build a “virtual park”, complete with lecture theatre, briefing rooms, sports fields and even a beach, to inform and entertain applicants and new recruits.

Raphael Mokades, founder of Rare Recruitment, which specialises in hiring individuals from more diverse backgrounds for the professions, says: “There are now a ton of digital products that broaden recruitment, it’s not just BS and lip service. That’s been a genuine equaliser.

“Some of the barriers faced by people from disadvantaged backgrounds — time and cost of travel, getting the right clothes — take on less significance,” says Mokades. Anecdotally, he adds, the process of interviewing itself is less stressful. It might mean disadvantaged students go to more interviews and do not jump at the first offer that comes along. “It’s a big deal in terms of accessibility.” 

Portrait of Raphael Mokades, founder of Rare Recruitment
Rare Recruitment’s Raphael Mokades sees remote recruitment as an equaliser: ‘Some of the barriers faced by people from disadvantaged backgrounds take on less significance’ © Bill Knight/Rare

‘Workplace abuse’

Despite the efforts of big companies, some young people working from home have still reported feelings of isolation and anxiety.

Earlier this year, junior analysts at Goldman Sachs complained to managers about their workload and treatment. A straw poll contained in a slide presentation that circulated on social media in March found some of them felt they were the “victims of workplace abuse”. Goldman’s Solomon told staff he wanted them to be able to share their concerns and reinforced a ban on junior bankers working Saturdays.

A survey the following month by Wall Street Oasis, a forum for financial services workers, found that first-year analysts were on average working 83.5 hours a week and getting just 5.75 hours of sleep a night. “I truly think working from home is the root of many of these problems,” said one Wells Fargo analyst. “Starting as a first year I feel like I’m only an email address to my team and there is no thought towards the hours and demands.”

Many graduates are ill-equipped to draw boundaries between work and leisure time. They may lack confidence to ask a manager for help. And remote working will be very different for someone living in a cramped shared flat rather than in a spacious house with their parents.

Soft skills are also harder to teach remotely. Confidence and presentation skills may not have developed, says Tanya de Grunwald, founder of the Good + Fair Employers Club, a group of graduate employers that includes AstraZeneca, the pharmaceutical group, and Santander bank. “Smaller employers possibly haven’t realised they will have to invest in those skills. It might be a shock when [the new recruits] come into the office. [Employers] will expect them to do a bit of growing up in the first six months.”

Smaller companies cannot afford to provide the same support as larger counterparts. The closure or suspension of some programmes has also pushed many graduates into freelancing or zero-hours contracts without the safety net of wellbeing programmes and managerial attention. 

Rahma Jeilani, a recent graduate and a media relations associate at Barclays, says that “more phone calls, emails and instant messages have been exchanged to help provide the closest thing possible to an in-person experience”. She says mass remote working has helped humanise senior leaders. “All of the background noise and hustle and bustle of real life [has] made us sympathetic to each other’s external [and] non-work commitments.”

Employers have stepped up the feedback they provide to young staff. In India, Boston Consulting Group now focuses the first part of any appraisal on recent recruits’ wellbeing and engagement, before examining how they have performed in the business. Goldman Sachs has formalised the process of providing feedback and advice that might previously have been offered casually while walking back from a client meeting. Interns now receive feedback every week instead of halfway through the programme and at the end.

Aarushi Agarwal, 25, who joined BCG as a senior associate in May, is living at home with her parents near Delhi. She appreciates her employer’s efforts but has missed working within a team. “The company can help us create these networks [online] but the whole excitement of going to the office, going to a client and even travelling isn’t there.”

A scene of people walking around a campus, part of the virtual park built by PwC to entertain and inform new recruits
The ‘virtual park’ designed by PwC’s UK arm to inform and entertain applicants and recruits © PwC

On the other hand, graduates may have gained in some respects. Sinéad Ryan, eastern hemisphere early careers manager at energy group BP, says: “They’ve dealt with lockdowns and graduated. They’ve remained committed and are resilient.”

“Even if something is a bit more challenging and unconventional, that can just add to your resilience and give you a new skillset,” says Maya Kearney, who joined Goldman Sachs in London as an analyst in February.

Jeilani thinks the past year has made her more independent. Graduates have had to take “ownership of their learning”, she says. “There is more of a need to ask specific and measured questions, that will give you the answers you need to carry out a task — to understand exactly what’s being asked of you.”

There is also a temptation to exaggerate the importance of informal training, says Ball at Jisc. “We have very little information on how effective learning over the shoulder is. That’s the way that a lot of businesses have [traditionally] handled on-the-job training.” Yet it often puts the responsibility on the graduate, he says, so if “you don’t pick it up, it’s your fault”.

The end of hand-holding

As the impact of the pandemic begins to recede in some parts of the world, employers are asking themselves which aspects of the involuntary virtual experiment to retain and which to discard.

Grunwald says some businesses are already concerned that they may be expected to continue to hold new recruits’ hands as working conditions stabilise. “There’s a balance between reassurance and babying someone. They don’t want to give them the impression that this is what work is always like.” 

Portrait of Tanya de Grunwald, founder of the Good + Fair Employers Club
Soft skills are hard to teach remotely, says Tanya de Grunwald, founder of the Good + Fair Employers Club. ‘It might be a shock when [the new recruits] come into the office’ © Jas Lehal

Among elements they are likely to repeat are some parts of the virtual recruitment process, the determination to attract applicants from beyond the old face-to-face campus hiring trail, and the increased feedback for new entrants. In the US, NACE asked employers in April about their plans for internships this summer. At least 43 per cent were going to offer a hybrid version; 38 per cent remained virtual, and only 13 per cent were committing to exclusively run the schemes in person.

Some of the most far-reaching effects of lockdown have yet to be felt, however. Nair from Unilever points out that “for the vast majority of the world — Latin America, India, Indonesia, Africa — it’s going to be 2022, maybe 2023, that we see some kind of normality.”

In home offices around the world, graduates themselves are recalibrating some of their short-term expectations.

At Unilever, incoming trainees would typically rotate to different parts of the company, including outside their home country. Now they are doing virtual international assignments. A graduate in Taiwan might work with a team in the UK, keeping the same hours despite the time difference.

For now, Hetherington’s aspirations for international work assignments are on hold. She and her Unilever team just had a modest celebration closer to home for the UK supermarket launch of a new Pot Noodle flavour she helped choose. “I would love to be able to travel,” she says, “but at this point I just want to travel to the office.”

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