This article is more than 2 years old

Welcome, graduates, to the post-pandemic workplace

This year's ISE student development survey tracks the shift in employer expectations of graduates' skills - with remote working and technical competence high on the list. Nicola Thomas surveys the scene
This article is more than 2 years old

Nicola Thomas is head of research at Institute of Student Employers

Never have the skills required to thrive in the workplace shifted so dramatically in a two year period as in the last two years.

When once water-cooler conversations were an everyday occurrence, now graduate hires are collaborating over Zoom and working out how to avoid digital fatigue.

Adjusting to remote work has been a challenge for many of us, even those established in their careers. So it’s no surprise that for graduates entering the job market, many for the first time, there is a lot of uncertainty around what skills they’ll need to adapt and succeed in this new world of work.

For employers, competition for the top graduate talent is at an all-time high. The skills gap is making it harder for employers to find and hire the right candidates. During the pandemic we also saw a significant drop in the opportunity for graduates to take on work experience. This has meant that graduates have had limited ability to be exposed to, and develop, relevant work skills prior to graduating.

As we move out of the Covid-19 pandemic, employers will need to start opening up the opportunities for students to take part in work experience, to ensure they’re developing the relevant skills they need in graduates for a post pandemic workplace.

Soft and strong

Our Student Development Survey 2022 collected responses for 107 organisations on their approaches to developing early career hires, and how this had been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. We found that one in three employers had changed their skill requirements as a direct result of the pandemic. In particular, we found that employers increased their focus on graduates’ soft skills during the pandemic.

The majority of today’s graduates are digital natives and most already possess a high level of digital ability. This means organisations are more focused on hiring graduates that have the ability to learn more complex technical skills such as coding and data analysis, and putting more of an emphasis on hiring graduates with the right attitudes such as self-motivation, critical thinking and curiosity – all attributes needed to be able to develop advanced technical skills.

The survey finds that overall employees had lower expectations of the skills graduates possessed at the time of hire in 2022 compared with previous years. Employers recognise the limited ability recent graduates have had to develop work specific skills during the pandemic. This could also signal a realistic view from employers of what skill developments they need to offer graduates to bridge the current skills gap.

Remote work during the pandemic has meant less opportunity for graduates to observe and interact with colleagues in the workplace. This has meant that they’ve not had the same ability to absorb information and knowledge indirectly from senior colleagues as graduates in previous years. This has put an onus on organisations to be more deliberate with their skill developments for graduates to ensure they are developing the right skills in their early career hires.

However, we also find that employers rate graduates higher on a number of attributes and behaviours than they’ve done in previous years. For example, employers believe that recent graduates demonstrate more positive thinking, resilience and adaptability than cohorts in the previous years. These are all vital skills in being able to navigate a changing world and key skills in coping with the current volatility of the job market.

Great expectations

Over 85 per cent of employers said that they assess graduates on their ability to collaborate during the interview process. Much of today’s work is highly complex and overlaps with multiple business functions and teams, some of which may even span across the globe.

Very little work happens in isolation, and universities need to ensure they’re continuing to develop graduates’ ability to collaborate, particularly virtually. Especially since the last two years has meant that many students have had limited opportunity to work together with others.

Another, perhaps obvious, but overlooked skill that new graduates will need entering the job market is the ability to work remotely. 65 per cent of employers report they expect graduates to be competent at remote working at the point of hire. This makes it important for universities to develop their students’ ability to work remotely. Being skilled at remote work also opens up a much larger pool of available graduate roles for students when they’re looking for their first role after graduating.

But remote work can be isolating and limits the visibility managers have of graduates’ work performance and skills. This means that graduates need to be able to promote themselves to be more visible in the organisations and be more proactive in how they manage their workload. This becomes particularly important when they look to progress into a more senior role.

We don’t yet know the full long term consequences of the pandemic on graduate development. However, we do know that we now live in a world of rapid change. The digital acceleration we’ve seen during the pandemic will mean that many of today’s jobs will most likely be automated and disappear in the next decade, while new technology will create jobs that haven’t even been imagined yet.

This unpredictability has increased the need for “soft” skills such as resilience, a continuous learning mindset and agility in the workplace. Moving forward we need to ensure we’re developing the leaders of tomorrow with the skills they need to be able to thrive and succeed in a world full of disruption.

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