In a matter of weeks, our next tranche of graduates leave university for the last time with, what should be, the excited anticipation of entering the workforce and starting their careers, but this year it is very different.
If the last few weeks have taught us anything it is to expect the unexpected. If a year ago it had been suggested that the world would be hit with a pandemic, be entering a lockdown causing a (albeit temporary) global economic slowdown that has forced us to suspend life and liberty, we would be forgiven for imagining that this was the backdrop of an apocalyptic movie.
Yet the reality is exactly that. As business leaders scramble to get a sense of the shape of their organisations going forwards, this global shock has focused their immediate attention on survival mode, shoring up revenues, protecting their people and delivering for their customers.
This environment forced upon us is neatly summed up in the term VUCA, (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous). Drawn from the leadership theories of Bennis & Nanus, it is a term coined by the American military in understanding strategic leadership decisions and the behaviour of groups & individuals at times of VUCA.
You could apply all of this theory to our current global situation, and whilst it seems impossible for any of us to see beyond the next 12 weeks, it is important that we do look beyond this crisis to the future, for one thing is certain – there is a future and the actions we take as leaders now will shape it for years to come.
It is deeply troubling to me to think that this next generation of future superstars and business leaders could be forgotten in all of this. We have spent years encouraging our children to work hard, study and go to university in order to enjoy successful and fulfilling careers.
This year any excited plans for gap years are put on hold. They will not benefit from the rich learning a gap year provides as they make the transition from ‘student to suit’. Travelling is not possible (not in the foreseeable future at least), summer jobs, working in bars and the prospect of securing any work over the coming months is rapidly becoming an impossible dream. There is no normal in all of this.
I have spent my career of over 25 years working in graduate recruitment & workforce development. I have seen where it has been done well and where it has not. During this time, my company has helped to start the careers for many thousands of graduates, with highly effective recruitment strategies and impactful development. Many have gone on to be very senior business leaders and are at the forefront of our industry today.
I am reminiscent of the early 1990’s, which is when I was early in my career, where a recession caused businesses not to focus on the future. Revenues declined, inflation was over 9%, interest was over 14% and unemployment was rising. Businesses, to their detriment as they discovered, stopped investing in recruiting graduates and over the following years struggled to keep up with demand as their markets took off. They simply did not have the talent and the leaders coming through their businesses, and it caused problems for several years.
Recognising the impact this had, over subsequent years many companies have ensured that their early career & graduate recruitment remains protected. I was one of the lucky ones, I was given a chance.
We have never experienced anything like this before. We are in uncharted waters and life is very unpredictable, but I am fearful that our 2020 graduates and early career talent who will chose not to go to university this year could become the lost generation.
As business owners and leaders, I believe we have a responsibility and obligation to ensure that this does not happen. We cannot allow our children to fall between the gaps caused by this situation; if there was ever a time that business needs to pull together with humanity, it is now.
We are seeing already the impact Coronavirus is having on our workforces. Skills gaps were already an issue, but now we have capacity issues as workers self-isolate or are ill. This is not going to change in the short term, but business trading still needs to happen, and life cannot go on hold. Products still need to be produced; salespeople still need to sell; deliveries still need to happen.
I believe despite the immediate turmoil this is causing, in a few weeks’ time this will become the new norm (at least for a while), and this needs to be the time to take a moment to look to the future. In a few weeks’ time, the next wave of graduates will hit the jobs market, eager to start their careers and where possible we need to do our bit.
At Discovery, we are going to do just this, and put our money where our mouth is. Over the coming days we will be announcing our plans for how we will support businesses both financially and structurally to ensure they can benefit from these fine people, who come full of fresh ideas and a genuine desire to make a difference, at a time when business could need them most.
As business leaders, our job is to look at the pin on the floor and view the horizon at the same time. I urge you, amidst all this ambiguity, to take a moment to consider what your business needs in the next two years rather than two weeks, however difficult this may be.