Are lockdown-era graduates really struggling to adapt to the workplace?

After months spent revising, socialising and working in isolation during the Covid pandemic, some employers believe recent graduates are missing key skills needed to succeed at work. But the reality is more complex
Pandemic Era Graduates Are Getting Soft Skills Training

The Covid pandemic disrupted almost every aspect of our lives. Months were spent in lockdown, cutting back on day-to-day interactions both socially and at work.

While for many, life has returned to normal, the effects of this disruption are longer lasting. And one group feeling the impact are those who have recently entered the workforce.

A lack of confidence, poor presentation skills and an inability to work in teams are among the criticisms employers have of their latest graduate hires. These businesses claim that the disruption students faced during the Covid-19 pandemic, when many classes and lectures were conducted via video-conferencing tools, has left many lacking in the soft skills they look for in recruits.

This has led to an increase in employers requesting that recent graduates and new trainees are initially based in the office, according to recruitment firm Hays. These businesses claim that this new generation of talent have missed out on opportunities to develop skills, such as communication, timekeeping, and teamwork, due to the impact of lockdowns on their education. 

Director Karen Young, says the hope is that by having them in the workplace, new recruits will be able to “pick up on conversations, learn through osmosis and generally get to know the company better”.

New training offered to lockdown-era graduates

This skills gap has meant some businesses have introduced training programmes designed to prepare staff for team-based and client-facing work. Deloitte and PwC, two of the ‘big four’ accounting firms that collectively recruited 2,785 graduates and school leavers last year, have launched initiatives aimed at helping junior staff develop these competencies.

Jackie Henry, managing partner for people and purpose at Deloitte, believes that recent graduates’ lack of exposure to the corporate environment means there is greater need for employers to provide training on basic professional and working skills, which wasn’t necessary in prior years.

“In some cases, their confidence in both themselves and their abilities as young professionals has been reduced. Many are used to working in an isolated way, so struggle with teamwork and how to work in the office and on client sites,” she adds.

The lack of interpersonal skills in graduates has long been the focus of complaints by employers

To address this problem, Deloitte is introducing an ‘early experience training week’ in July. The week of sessions and talks aims to address the skills gaps that have been identified in new recruits and improve their mental resilience.

PwC is running a similar scheme, called ‘Who will you coach today?’, that requires company partners and directors to find more ways to involve new recruits in in-person work. It will also allow senior managers to coach full time on a secondment basis. 

PwC chief people officer Ian Elliott hopes that this will increase the amount of coaching and mentoring that is available to junior staff outside of line-management. “It’s wholly understandable that students who missed out on face-to-face activities during Covid may now be stronger in certain fields, such as working independently, and less confident in others, such as presentations to groups,” he says. “It’s something we’re noticing, but recent joiners are also telling us themselves that they’re keen for more support.”

Evolving work norms

Management consultancy Gartner has also noted an increase in the number of companies raising concerns over the workplace social skills of gen Z. But rather than offering training in an attempt to solve the problem, it instead believes that business leaders need to change their thinking, says Gartner HR senior principal Emily Rose McRae.

“The problem may come down to leaders’ expectations of professionalism,” she says. “Organisations are really struggling with working out ways to help people entering the workforce to adapt. A lot of the time they’re defaulting to bringing everybody back into the office in the hope that new staff will pick up these skills through observation. Maybe new hires are just doing things differently because work norms evolve.”

Cranfield School of Management professor Emma Parry agrees that the claim that this cohort of graduates are missing the soft skills required for the workplace is an oversimplification of a more complex situation. Although it’s true that the pandemic deprived many pandemic-era students of opportunities to socialise and work alongside their peers, they may have picked up other important skills due to this unique experience. 

“There is as much evidence to suggest that the pandemic has actually driven the development of other personal qualities, such as resilience and empathy, that are equally as important in the workplace,” she says. “What’s more, the lack of interpersonal skills in graduates has long been the focus of complaints by employers. To blame the pandemic for these shortcomings is to ignore the fact that this might be a longer-term issue.” 

While gen Z are the focus of business leaders’ current concerns, similar criticisms were made of previous generations when they were entering the workforce. A 2014 survey of businesses by the British Chambers of Commerce came to a similar conclusion: that school leavers and graduates were unprepared for employment, with half of the 3,000 firms surveyed saying young people lacked basic skills such as communication.

It’s possible that the claims of businesses like Deloitte and PwC are simply a reflection of the intergenerational tensions that have been the cause of workplace divisions for many years – only this time reinvented for our post-pandemic world. 

Training programmes are one way to help boost the confidence of these new hires but it may be easier for leaders to accept the working styles of the younger generation and instead focus on the other skills pandemic-era grads can bring to the workplace.