Generation Virus: How COVID-19 will impact the next generation and why HR needs to act now

The IMF’s latest forecasts are that the UK economy could shrink by 10.2% due to the pandemic. The crisis shut down sectors of the economy, from hospitality to retail, which make up a substantial proportion of education leavers – especially non-graduates. In the 2009 recession, we saw a rise in the number of graduates, and we could see similar developments if job opportunities for non-grads dry up. A wave of academically overqualified, inexperienced candidates could follow, leading to greater competition for jobs amongst a pool of reduced talent.

The skills gap presently costs UK businesses £6.3 billion a year – a number that threatens to increase. When the economy recovers, could a wider skills gap inhibit growth? HR must act now to control the impact of COVID-19 on the next generation of workers – and the UK’s future.

Youth unemployment

The Institute of Student Employers has reported we’re already seeing the impact of the economic crisis on young people. Businesses may be increasingly uncertain about their vacancies aimed at entry-level workers and cutting roles to save capital.

As younger people will have fewer opportunities to build their technical expertise, professional networks, and soft skills, they could find it difficult to advance their careers. How can HR access new talent in the future if the next generation won’t be ready to assume tomorrow’s roles?

Diversity of talent

The COVID-19 crisis paints a mixed picture for future talent. As university study is taken up as an alternative to unemployment, those from less advantaged backgrounds who can’t fund further study could be denied this alternative. At the same time, people from less privileged backgrounds that do secure work instead of higher education might find they’ve developed stronger ‘soft’ skills than graduates.

Employers may be faced with two choices: prioritising soft skills, or choosing from a wider and overqualified (but perhaps lacking in soft skills) talent pool. HR will need to keep diversity at the top of their agenda if divisions in education opportunities become more pronounced.

Less innovation in business

Having a multi-generational workforce is important for several reasons. Without younger workers, businesses may compromise cognitive diversity, deny their workforce the benefits of reverse mentoring, and risk hindering innovation.

Businesses that don’t recognise the contribution of the younger workforce could miss out on the skills that may be more inherent in them, such as digital nativity. 12.6 million adult workers in the UK lack digital skills, costing the UK economy £63 billion yearly.

Similarly, younger workers may be more likely to challenge the status-quo, to drive change and offer new perspectives. UK businesses could regress if they don’t have new ideas propelling them forward.

How can HR act today?

Create opportunities for young people

By ramping up what they can offer young people, employers will be contributing significantly to the diversity and skilling of future talent. There are many initiatives that companies can offer, such as placements and internships – learning opportunities, overseeing these remotely if needs be. Some especially agile businesses have already amended their graduate and apprenticeship recruiting methods.

Employers could also consider offering high-quality contract employment with positive learning experiences. For instance, the Adecco Group gives candidates the chance to be CEO for a month, and other kinds of work experience, that employers can learn from to implement similar opportunities in their own business contexts.

Protect younger workers

Many businesses have faced hardship during the pandemic, and some will consider redundancies. If jobs need to be cut, HR must stay alert to the potential age discrimination that could occur.

Organisations need to be mindful of maintaining and continuing to benefit from a multi-generational workforce. This will also prevent potential employment and pay scarring. Younger workers can continue to develop their skills, further securing the future generation of workers.

Outplacement services

If you must let younger staff go, help them prepare for and secure their next role where possible. Outplacement is always helpful – but for younger less experienced workers it’s even more so.

Going the extra mile, sourcing similar vacancies for outgoing employees, or finding roles more suited to their competencies, can help keep them in employment, ensuring they continue to build their skills.

Building Workplace Resilience

Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s work on the ‘Hierarchy of Needs argues that people prioritise basic needs, and those needs correlate strongly with physical and emotional wellbeing. If young people feel they’re unable to support themselves, they could be vulnerable to poorer mental health as a result.

HR is well placed to act here. As studies have shown, Gen Z is typically more open to talking about their mental health concerns, so it might be fruitful for HR to start dialogues about mental wellbeing.

Final thoughts

The pandemic presents a threat to the next generation of workers, and the gauntlet has been thrown to HR. If businesses want to enjoy a pool of diverse and skilled young people, then they need to help continue to build it. By doing so, the future of talent will be one step closer to being secured.

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