Our Research and Policy Manager, Dr Rebecca Montacute, discusses our latest report on the impact of coronavirus on access to the workplace.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already had a considerable impact on the British job market, with vacancies down 65% compared to this time last year. From previous downturns, we know rises in unemployment tend to hit young people the hardest, with youth unemployment following the 2008 recession twice that of the overall rate. In an economic downturn, graduates looking to enter the workforce face long term scarring effects, with their earnings suffering long after the economy overall has recovered. The downturn is also likely to have a considerable impact on social mobility, as we know when opportunities are scarce, they tend to be kept close to those with connections, resources and know how.
Work experience and internships
The Trust’s new research released today shows the pandemic is already having a substantial impact on graduate recruitment and access to the workplace. Many organisations who previously offered internships or work experience placements have cancelled them during the lockdown, with just over three fifths (61%) of employers cancelling some or all of their placements, and only about a third continuing all of their usual placements. The impact on work experience placements also looks set to last beyond the short term, with almost half (48%) of organisations saying there will be fewer of these opportunities available in their businesses over the next year, meaning many more young people are likely to miss out on experiences which act as vital stepping-stones into the world of work.
The pandemic is also affecting employers’ plans for graduate recruitment, with 39% planning to hire fewer or no graduates over the next year. However, the picture here isn’t entirely gloomy, with 27% anticipating they would actually hire more graduates over the next year, perhaps reflecting optimism amoung some employers that the economy will rebound going into the next year.
Current undergraduate students do not however share the same optimism, with 46% saying the pandemic has had a negative impact on their ability to gain graduate employment; including 18% having had work experience placements cancelled or postponed, 15% citing reduced access to their university careers service, 11% having interviews cancelled, and 4% having a job offer withdrawn.
Social mobility in the workplace
With far fewer opportunities likely to be available in the aftermath of the crisis, promoting social mobility and fair access for roles that remain will be more important than ever. Encouragingly, just under a third (29%) of employers think social mobility and socio-economic diversity will be more of a priority in the next two years, although a small proportion (11%) said it would be less of a priority due to the crisis. Employers were also mixed on how difficult it would be to act on social mobility during this time, with almost a quarter (23%) saying it would make taking action more difficult.
How can employers help?
Given the increased importance of action from employers, alongside today’s research, the Trust has also published a guide for employers on steps they can take to improve social mobility in the workplace. This includes paying and openly advertising internships, contextualising recruitment practices and monitoring the socio-economic background of the workforce.
It also includes steps employers can take in the short term to ensure fair access to opportunities during the pandemic, for example moving work experience placements online where possible, and providing equipment to young people who need it to take part, for example a computer or internet dongle. There are also some opportunities for employers, with placements moved online, they can now reach a much larger pool of talent geographically.
Looking to future recruitment, as our previous impact briefs have shown, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have been hit the hardest by time away from school. Young people impacted by the pandemic have just as much potential and talent to offer employers as generations before, but many, and particularly those from poorer backgrounds, will not have the same opportunity to showcase it. Employers should take this into account in hiring decisions going forward.
Steps for government and universities
While the government has put in place a considerable economic package to support jobs, there is currently no specific support for graduates. We are recommending the government put in place a ‘Kickstart grads’ scheme, as part of their recently announced Kickstart programme, with incentives for graduate employers to offer paid internships to graduates. Priority for places on the scheme should be given to those the most at risk, including graduates who have already had a period of unemployment, and those from poorer families eligible for the full maintenance loan at university.
Financial support should also be put in place for young people looking to take up postgraduate study while opportunities in the economy are scarce. Without it, and with many part-time jobs students often use to support themselves during their studies unavailable, this route risks being closed off to many young people from poorer backgrounds. Increased financial support for postgraduate study, targeted at those who need it most, could also help to protect graduates from unemployment while upskilling the workforce.
The economic impact of the pandemic will have considerable and lasting consequences for social mobility. As the Trust have demonstrated throughout this COVID-19 impact series, from early years, through to schools, apprenticeships, access to university and into the world of work, the crisis will impact on disadvantaged young people through every life stage. It will take a concerted effort, from all parts of society, to lessen this impact and ensure all young people have an equal chance to showcase their talent and potential.