Every generation has its own experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the virus has largely spared the physical health of young people, it’s been hard to determine the true impact on higher education and fledgling careers of the generation entering the workforce at this unprecedented time.
Conducted between January and February this year, a survey by recent European Agency Award winners Liberty Comms, in association with Opinium, provides deep insights into the realities facing students and young professionals on both sides of the Atlantic – and seeks to accelerate change.
Polling a sample group of 500 18-25-year-olds in both the US and UK, the survey lays bare the pandemic’s many challenges, from a risk-averse job market to remote interviews. But as the findings in the five key sections below reveal, the next generation of professionals also sees positive solutions and signposts to a brighter future ahead.
It’s a subject that holds huge resonance for Liberty Comms. Since 1998, the agency has become renowned for a dynamic communications service that includes branding, social media, crisis management and market intelligence. But just as central to the ethos is the Liberty Academy, which aims to nurture new talent for the industry, and is a leading voice in the growing call for other industries to do more to welcome the next generation.
“One of our biggest motivations for conducting this survey was to shine a light on the situation facing the next generation of professionals as they stand on the brink of their careers,” said Elena Davidson, CEO of Liberty Comms. “We hope these striking statistics will prompt other industry leaders to commit to recruiting and developing young talent in these exceptional times – and beyond.”
What has been the impact of COVID on young people’s careers?
Perhaps the most encouraging statistic is that over half of US respondents believe the pandemic has improved their relationships with family (55%) and friends (54%), while 49% feel it has positively affected their mental health. Their outlook is bright professionally too, with 46% of respondents believing the pandemic has made a positive effect on both their immediate prospects and long-term career progression.
This is mirrored by US respondents’ proactive approach to the job market. Since the pandemic began, 72% have applied for work, sending four applications on average. With the most popular industry being food and drink (36%), 52% have had responses from all their applications, with an average of two responses and two offers received.
The outlook is more mixed in the UK. While most believe the pandemic has positively impacted relationships with family (57%) and friends (50%), more than half (53%) report that their mental health has suffered. This striking discrepancy between US and UK outlooks could be partly a result of the two countries’ socio-political backdrops. When the survey was taken in January and February, President Joe Biden’s incoming administration had taken power with a pledge to reverse America’s infection rates, sparking hopes of a return to normality. Meanwhile, in the UK, a spike in COVID cases – twinned to teething problems with the Brexit deal and fears of rocketing living costs – has left many feeling adrift and even more uncertain of their future.
On the subject of employment, UK optimism is a little lower too, with 37% believing the pandemic has made a positive impact on their immediate prospects (compared to 38% negative). Meanwhile, 39% anticipate a positive effect on long-term career progression (relative to 36% negative).
Despite this, since the start of COVID, 64% of the UK sample group has applied for work, with five applications per individual on average. The food and drink industry is again the most popular (tied with wholesale, retail and franchising on 22%). Of the sample group, 43% have had responses from all jobs applied for, with four responses and two job offers received on average.
What are the key challenges when applying for jobs during the pandemic?
The positive mindset of young US professionals can’t conceal the frustrations of applying for work in the COVID era. Almost all of the sample group (91%) experienced some difficulties, with key obstacles cited including the large number of rival applicants (37%), the struggle to make a connection at a virtual interview (33%) and hiring freezes making less jobs available (31%). On top of these challenges over two fifths (44%) did not get a response from all their applications. This left 40% feeling that searching for work was hopeless – while the same number are worried their qualifications didn’t measure up.
Amongst the UK group, the frustrations are even higher (97%): no doubt a reflection of a tough job market where unemployment has reached a four-year high. As before, competition for jobs is cited as a significant difficulty (42%), as are virtual interviews (31%). Notably, however, many respondents feel the difficulties of a remote world goes both ways, with 34% believing it is hard to assess whether they would fit in at a firm whose premises they have never visited. In the UK the experience of not hearing back from applications is more common, with over half (54%) not receiving a response from all their applications. Feelings of negativity are a little higher in the UK, too, with not getting a response leaving 47% worried about their future and 42% feeling that job-hunting was futile.
“While frustrations are inevitable when trying to find work, it’s a cause for concern that over 40% of respondents in both the UK and US aren’t getting a response to applications during their work search,” said Davidson. “It’s not only vital that government addresses this – but that CEOs look beyond survival mode to the future of their companies, and create a pathway and infrastructure to support talented young people.”
How have workplaces adapted to changes brought on by the pandemic?
For US respondents already in employment, perceptions of their company’s handling of the pandemic are generally high. The vast majority (84%) feel their workplace has adapted well, with 82% saying their employer has worked hard to ensure it’s easy to work around home responsibilities, and 81% feeling they have the equipment they need to work remotely.
The picture is even more positive in the UK, with 88% praising their firm’s adaption to pandemic conditions, 84% believing their employer has provided the necessary remote-working equipment, and 80% feeling their managers have put in place a framework to let them progress professionally.
“It’s important that employers offer a strong level of adjustment to the working environments of young people, especially as these individuals are at critical junctures of their lives,” said James Endersby, CEO at Opinium. “Young people are not only questioning morally what is suitable and viable, alongside what is hygienically possible, but they’re learning how well their seniors and leaders respond to such a crisis, and how they will learn from it, and how they would handle such a situation if they were put in positions of authority.”
What has been the pandemic’s impact on university life?
For US respondents in college/university, the survey results are encouraging. 79% feel their place of learning has adapted well to the pandemic, while the same number say they have been supplied with the necessary equipment to work remotely, and 73% say they can work effectively around home responsibilities.
As for how colleges can best support students, the most popular response (though still only 25%) is to provide access to career placement – and 74% believe they are being helped effectively here. Yet viewpoints are changing: 67% of young people in the US are reconsidering what they want from their future careers in light of the pandemic, with 35% wanting their chosen profession to allow for a life lived to the full outside work.
Students in the UK are a little more critical, with 68% saying their college or university has adapted well to COVID, 68% feeling they have been supplied with the necessary equipment and 70% praising their place of learning for helping them to work around home responsibilities. Some suggest that the snap lockdown after Christmas caught UK universities off-guard, while the drop in lucrative foreign student numbers has caused a drop in budget and cutting of corners.
As in the States, career placements are seen by UK students as the most important opportunity (20%), and 68% are pleased with how they have been supported here. Even so, 64% of UK respondents are changing their minds over what they want from their career, with 33% eyeing a career that allows a fulfilling life outside work, while 28% want a more financially secure role.
What are the most valuable skills for young people entering work?
With the business world changing fast – and skill-sets evolving alongside it – young US professionals have firm views on which attributes will be most advantageous in the job market. When applying for a job, the most desirable attributes are perceived to be communication (38%), problem solving (33%) and teamwork (31%). As for career progression, the same skills top the list, at 29%, 28% and 27%, respectively.
Meanwhile, real-world experience is considered even more important than qualifications (67%), while 63% recognise the importance of having contacts in the industry. Around half of young US professionals (56%) are on the career path they intended to follow – and 61% of those who aren’t believe they will ultimately end up in their preferred industry.
Young people in the UK have similar opinions on what it takes to gain employment. Successfully applying for a job, the results suggest, hinges on communication (44%), teamwork (42%) and problem solving (26%), while the most valuable skills for career progression are seen as leadership (32%), teamwork (28%) and communication (28%).
Qualifications aren’t the be-all and end-all to UK respondents, either: 73% believe in hands-on work experience, while 62% recognise the importance of a contact in their chosen sector. Around half (52%) of young UK professionals are already on the path they want – of those that aren’t, 55% are confident of finding their place in the future.
Available to read now, the Liberty Comms survey provides a fascinating and far-reaching portrait of a world in flux. The frustrations of young people in the face of the pandemic are clearly mirrored in the statistics – but so too is an inherent optimism and willingness to adapt to an uncertain future.
With initiatives that include internships, taster programmes and the flagship Liberty Academy, the Liberty Comms team is committed to developing the next generation of talent, and hopes the findings of this new survey will encourage other industry leaders to do the same.
“There are some heartening statistics in this survey,” noted James Meredith, Head of Strategy and Planning at Liberty Comms and lead for the company’s Liberty Academy programme, “that leave no doubt of the proactive attitudes of tomorrow’s professionals. Yet it’s clear that much still has to be done to ease young people into a job market whose challenges are no doubt a factor in their growing mental health issues, particularly in the UK. We believe that schemes like the Liberty Academy are a step in the right direction, and we call on all industry figures to read the report and consider how they can adapt their own businesses for a generation of talent with so much to offer.”
Liberty Comms is an award-winning agency that empower brands through effective communications, and is committed to supporting young talent through the Liberty Academy. Discover more here.