In the tragedy that played out in the U.S. job market during the early months of 2020, younger job seekers saw both their present and future plans scattered.
Millennial and Generation Z workers in a recent survey by public relations firm Liberty Communications and market research company Opinium reported a variety of challenges in landing jobs in the past year, including competitive hiring processes and difficulties with virtual interviews. But 46% of those who were employed said their jobs were not leading them to their desired career direction. More than one-third said it was unlikely they would end up in their desired career.
As younger workers size up their prospects, employers are realizing their workforces may lack the skills essential to business success post-pandemic. That realization is partly the cause of a "gigantic change" in the way employers approach talent development and skill building, said Jane Oates, president at the nonprofit WorkingNation and former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor's employment and training division.
The rapid expansion of automation — a component of digital transformation — is becoming an even greater talent concern for employers. "The big challenge for a lot of them is that they have workforces where they had skills that were useful for the past couple of years, but they're becoming outdated," said Euan Blair, founder and CEO of U.K.-based apprenticeship firm Multiverse.
These are the forces younger workers and job candidates will contend with as economic recovery progresses. A growing contingent of employers recognize the need to provide these individuals with continuous learning opportunities, said Laura Gaviria Halaby, head of strategic initiatives and partnerships at SoftBank Group International. But there is still a disconnect, she added, wherein the type of training employers provide may not align with the specific, real-life situations employees will face on the job.
Gaviria Halaby said data literacy is likely to rank high up on the list of technical skills on which younger workers will be evaluated in the recruitment process. Understanding how to analyze and extract insights from data is "going to be essential, like knowing how to read and write," she added. These workers may face learning curves, however, due to the lack of emphasis on data training both from educational institutions as well as employers.
Likewise, employers disproportionately look at younger workers as digital natives, said Oates, but not all millennials or Generation Z members have had the same educational experiences or had the same opportunities to interact with workplace tech.
"It's unfair in some ways," she added. "Age is not an indicator of anything but your days on Earth."
The skills needed to operate effectively in a remote work environment are different from the classroom-based environment that many younger workers have experienced, said Ralph Wolff, founder and president of QA Commons, an organization that focuses on postsecondary training programs.
Employers are moving away from classroom-based learning in favor of applied learning in real-life situations, Blair said. There is also significant interest in guided learning programs, particularly for younger workers. "That is so valuable because people need guidance and mentors," he added. "You can't just rely on an online learning portal to teach you everything you need to know."
Technical skills will only be part of the equation, and employers will still evaluate younger workers' soft skills to determine their fit in an organization, even beyond the pandemic. But upskilling is more difficult for soft skills, despite the fact that they are "essential employability skills," Wolff said. The pandemic "has made that worse," he added, due to its impact on in-person learning opportunities.
Some employers have shifted to account for those impacts. Walmart, for example, created virtual internships and teaming opportunities to provide associates opportunities to "learn and grow from peers and leaders," Drew Holler, the U.S. retailer's SVP, people, said in an email.
On the recruiting side, school closures during the pandemic have changed the way employers evaluate younger candidates. Caring for family members or helping teach younger siblings can be ways in which recent graduates demonstrate leadership skills and responsibility rather than participation in a sports team or summer job, sources told HR Dive last year.
Wolff noted that employers "have had a hard time identifying with precision" soft skills even before the pandemic, complicating the issue further. Blair said he believes focusing on "indicators of potential," such as grit, conscientiousness and interpersonal skills, help make it easier to evaluate younger candidates while also making hiring processes more inclusive.
Younger workers, meanwhile, may need to be able to demonstrate their commitment to learning on the job. "You have to become a lifelong learner, and [employers] have to hire for that type of quality," Gaviria Halaby said.
The 'long bridge' forward
The pandemic has not changed employers' concerns about whether educational institutions can prepare younger workers for the future, according to sources. "There's a long bridge from leaving school to getting to the front door of the employer," Oates said.
Per Blair, stale corporate training models and "static" processes in higher education both hinder talent development. But curriculums at educational institutions are "too often behind what the future is going to look like," said Wolff. Employers, he added, often comment that faculty are not current with workplace issues such as digitalization and automation.
"At the 30,000-foot level, there is an enormous amount about artificial intelligence and its effect on jobs," Wolff said. "I don't see … the programs adapting as quickly as they may well need to."
Sources agreed on the need for partnerships and, generally, collaboration between employers and academic programs in order to ensure younger job candidates are prepared for emerging jobs. Educational institutions may need to adjust to the idea of preparing students for multiple potential career paths, Wolff said, but he noted employers "need to be actively participating in these conversations," providing insight into their short- and long-term skill needs.
Some local governments are taking different approaches in addressing the pandemic. Utah, for example, passed legislation funding short-term training programs at higher education institutions in the state, including discounted certification programs, Higher Ed Dive reported last fall.
Another impact of the pandemic is that it is difficult to land a job without the opportunity to participate in internship or apprenticeship programs. "People with inside knowledge have a massive advantage," Blair said.
Those opportunities may be fewer due to the pandemic-driven downsizing or outright elimination of career services programs at some educational institutions, Wolff said. Similarly, Oates said jobs numbers in the education sector make it "safe to assume" that student services have been cut in the past year.
Despite the advantages higher education credentials provide candidates, Blair said he has seen a shift away from the "fetishization" of such credentials, with employers looking toward non-traditional candidates who can demonstrate they have the skills employers need.
The pandemic has only accelerated that shift, Gaviria Halaby said; "Joyfully, that's going to open doors for young folks but also [for] underrepresented groups."
While millennial and Generation Z workers may be eager to take the next step in their careers and recover from 2020's crises, employers will still need to factor in the preferences that influence where they decide to build their careers. Many young workers may seek jobs with tuition assistance and on-the-job training, Oates said.
Purpose could also be a key factor. "The younger generation wants meaning in their jobs," Wolff said. "They're not going to be satisfied with a day-to-day grind."