Young people might be relatively mildly affected by Covid-19 medically, but the pandemic is making life difficult for those planning to continue their education or looking for jobs. On the one hand, there was the exam grade débacle. On the other, the economy has been hammered.
In adapting to the challenges of the virus, all of us with skin in the game — students, those in the education community and employers — are learning as we go along. We need to be measured in our response, stay calm and not over-react.
I am sometimes asked for my advice about what young people should do. So here are a few suggestions.
First, there are reasons to feel positive. The limitations of relying on an algorithm to determine exam results are now acknowledged. And although recruitment is down, graduate programmes are still operating and there are vacancies in areas such as technology. The virus has also created new business opportunities for those with an innovative bent.
Entry level job seekers should not worry too much about grades. While getting an A or A* can matter hugely for accessing a specific university or professional course, this grade distinction is less relevant to most employers.
At Siemens, for example, we take a much broader view of candidates, including employability skills, work experience and awareness of the need for reliability, turning up on time, teamwork, and how to present themselves to other people. We always interview applicants, to understand their aptitude in these areas. If we feel their grades are of concern because of Covid-19 we take guidance from our education partners such as Pearson Education or to the student’s college/school on any necessary adjustments.
Do not be deterred from making an application, because of your geographic location; this is no longer such a huge barrier. For example, even if you are based in Leeds you can apply for a job in, say, London or Manchester because many more roles can now be done through mobile, remote or virtual working. For example my very talented intern last year spend a good deal of time working from her family home in Ireland and not our offices in Surrey. Employers such as Siemens want to be accessible to talented people whatever their location.
For many jobs, you can apply and be interviewed and assessed online. It is even possible to take a virtual tour of a prospective employer’s office to see what it looks like inside. On-boarding and networking with your new team can also be done via the internet.
One increasingly important skill is competence with video technology such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Webex. These applications are part of the new normal, so you should get comfortable and educated on them — practise being on camera.
Another tip is to bear in mind that even if you think you are familiar with a company, your knowledge might be out of date. Many organisations have transformed themselves in the past few months. So it is a good idea to check online and find out how what has changed at your prospective employer in response to recent events.
Also crucial is your CV. Make sure it is fully up-to-date and think carefully about how you sell yourself. Mention extra-curricular activities that might be relevant in the workplace. And however broad your skills be sure to highlight your familiarity with technology.
If an employer has shown an interest in you but can’t follow through because of Covid-19, stay in touch to let them know you are still interested. But if, despite your best efforts, in the short-term things do not work out as planned, have a plan B, a fall-back position. One young woman I know who has not been able to get into law school this year has signed up for an entrepreneur course.
Another good strategy is to acquire a new skill and show you have used this period as an opportunity to upgrade your abilities. There are lots of open learning platforms teaching technical courses such as programming and data analytics. I did one myself on a particular type coding.
For students who find themselves having to take an unexpected gap year before going on to higher education, it is worth considering an internship to learn about the workplace and discover what interests you. Act fast and make as many applications as possible to increase your chances.
At Siemens, our commitment to talent at every level has not waned or been diluted. Being a good employer is very important to us — our graduate, apprentice and intern programmes are still vibrant.
Of our 16,000 UK staff, 350 are on apprenticeships — about 80% of the normal rates — and 100 are on our graduate trainee programmes. The 20% reduction is more due to organisational restructuring during 2019 and 2020 than the virus.
Unsurprisingly, given the nature of our business, apprenticeships in engineering, digital technology, and business are the most popular. None of our apprentices were put on a break in learning during the lockdown because they were able to continue their studies at home. Very few were furloughed and those that were continued their apprenticeship studies.
Certificates and qualifications do have value, especially when required for courses linked to professional bodies. But people deserve to be fairly assessed and graded based on their attainment. In 2020, I do not think employers are going to be unduly worried about qualifications.
At Siemens, we take our corporate and social responsibility very seriously and we want to be seen as a good employer. We’re still committed and increasingly passionate about recruiting young people, because we know that unless they want to join us and grow into new specialisations, we won’t survive as a company.