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Navigating the storm: the role of careers services during a pandemic

May 2020

With the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the graduate labour market becoming clearer, university careers services are more important than ever as the link between students and employers, write Gabi Binnie and Tristram Hooley

The last few months have been marked by disruption and uncertainty for students, employers and universities alike. The turbulence looks set to continue as we emerge from lockdown and begin the process of recovery. Despite this, the student and graduate recruitment picture for 2020 is becoming increasingly clear.

New research from the Institute of Student Employers, supported by AGCAS, explores the perspectives of 179 student employers on how COVID-19 has affected their recruitment plans so far and how they expect to attract, recruit and develop students and graduates in the aftermath of the crisis. The survey found that employers are reducing the numbers of graduates that they are recruiting and changing their approach to recruitment and selection, with a substantial amount of formerly face-to-face activities shifting online.

They are keen to work with education providers, especially universities, to figure out how the post-COVID labour market is going to work effectively.

Graduating into the unknown 

In a recent survey by Prospects, over three quarters (78.5%) of final-year university students were concerned about the crisis resulting in fewer jobs in their industry. Our research with employers shows that graduating students are right to be concerned. Employers report that they plan to recruit 12% less graduates than they were going to before the COVID-19 crisis. The reduction in hiring is worse for SMEs (where they expect a 41% drop in the number of graduates) and for firms in the built environment (45% drop), retail and FMCG (18% drop) and digital and IT (17% drop) sectors.

The reduction in hiring by SMEs is concerning as they recruit approximately a third of graduates. SMEs were more likely to have changed their recruitment plans because of concerns about the financial toll that the crisis will have on their business and were more likely to feel negatively overall about their future after COVID-19 than larger employers. 

The volatility of the labour market is likely to lead an increase in the demand for career support from university careers services. Many careers services have been going through a similar process to that reported by employers: shifting services online and reimagining their delivery approach for the post-COVID world. Some services have developed COVID-19-specific webinars and careers cafes to help students develop their resilience, manage uncertainty and consider how their career plans might be changed by the pandemic.

Many careers services have already anticipated the challenges facing SMEs both during and after lockdown, and developed initiatives to connect struggling SMEs with graduates seeking opportunities. Others have established grants to creative graduates to help them to manage a precarious labour market by freelancing and entrepreneurial approaches.

Careers services are adapting their provision to help students understand the etiquette and norms of working from home, as well as build their confidence in going through virtual interviews.

Gaining experience 

Over a quarter of university finalists surveyed by Prospects reported losing their work placement or internship. Our research also paints a bleak picture for internships and placements, with employers expecting to recruit 40% less interns and placement students than planned. The employers we surveyed were concerned about being able to offer interns and placement students a fulfilling experience whilst moving their business operations online and dealing with financial insecurity.

While placements and internships may not go ahead as planned, all is not lost. Universities are responding with new ways that students can meet employers and gain work experience via digital internships, and alternative assessments to curtailed placement years. Employers are also adjusting their existing internships and placements to enable them to go ahead where possible. Some are shifting to digital internships or placements, while others are shortening the experience or delaying start dates.

The new normal

While it is not yet clear what the new normal is going to look like for the graduate labour market, we are starting to see some strong indications. Employers are shifting recruitment activities, including interviews and assessment centres, online, with many reporting that they expect this to continue into the autumn and beyond. Similarly, the shift by careers services to move careers work online is likely to continue into next year and beyond.

COVID-19 has changed how we work in the short-term with homeworking, videoconferencing and e-learning now part of everyone's day-to-day life. These changes, alongside the changes that we have been seeing in recruitment processes and the provision of career support, are unlikely to be abandoned once we resume something resembling normal life.

A 'new normal' is being established in many businesses, which students and graduates will have to become adept at navigating. Careers services are adapting their provision to help students understand the etiquette and norms of working from home, as well as build their confidence in going through virtual interviews and other recruitment activities.

Supporting businesses 

The situation with COVID-19 and the wider economic picture remains volatile. Our research shows that 40% of employers are still unclear on how many graduates they are going to recruit next year with a further 15% of employers anticipating a fall in their student recruitment next year. The situation is likely to remain both uncertain and challenging for graduates for some time to come.

Careers professionals have a key role to play in ensuring that graduates will still be able to find opportunities to start their career. The support that they offer needs to address both supply and demand in the labour market by both supporting students and graduates to understand the changing context and engaging directly with businesses and employers to help them understand what graduates can offer.

Careers professionals work with businesses and employers on a daily basis and understand the nuances and complexities of their local graduate labour markets. Universities, who are likely to be key players in regional conversations about the reconstruction of the economy, must recognise the value that the careers services - the vital link between students and employers - have to play in this process. There is a need to ensure that the student labour market is not forgotten as employers begin the process of rebuilding their businesses.

Down, but not out

The recruitment picture for 2020 is becoming increasingly clear. The student labour market is down but not out. Opportunities may arise from the crisis and businesses will need support to ensure they are primed to take advantage of them.

The employers surveyed in this research want universities to be strategic and implement ways that employers can meet and recruit their students, in a way that is easy for the employer and is inclusive to all students. Careers services have already responded quickly to support students and recent graduates to build careers and transition to the labour market and we expect to see more innovative and bold provision emerge over the coming months.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of HECSU/Prospects

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