The employment market is tougher than ever – but jobhunters shouldn’t give up

Originally published in the Evening Standard

It’s right that we prioritise concerns about the elderly as the coronavirus pandemic worsens .

But spare a thought too for those we work with every day: those about to enter employment for the first time. It’s already clear that the job market is going to face an effective lockdown for several months. The pandemic is going to knock business activity and economic growth worldwide and we have to face up to the fact that we could be confronted with a global recession that is going to have stark consequences for those currently in work and those seeking it.

In the UK, the ‘jobs miracle’ which has seen unemployment fall consistently year after year even in times of austerity may be brought to an abrupt end as the economic effects of social isolation take hold and we see companies forced to lay off workers.

So what can those graduating from schools, colleges and universities do in these troubling times? Already worried sick about older loved ones they may not be able to have contact with, they now face more anxiety than ever about their prospects of finding employment.

Many universities have switched to remote teaching in recent days, leaving students more isolated at a time of acute stress. In 2008, we saw investment banks, law firms and accounting firms simply postponing their graduate intakes by a year and sending these young people out to fend for themselves for 12 months; it is looking increasingly likely that the same will happen this year. Of course, such a delay will have a knock-on impact on the graduate class of 2021, too, as there will be twice as many people seeking jobs.

For now, candidates must expect firms to have an aversion to seeing candidates face-to-face. In the last two years we have seen many organisations across financial services transition to the use of artificial intelligence for first-stage interviewing, and those with such arrangements in place will suffer less disruption than others as a result of the halt in in-person interviews.

For others, there will be cancelled or postponed interviews, late shifts to online or conference call processes, and a whole new set of protocols for the young jobseeker to get to grips with. Those that are not familiar with AI processes will want to familiarise themselves with them as there is every chance that their roll-out will be accelerated in light of the current restrictions. Those that have interviews cancelled or simply hear nothing about ongoing applications should resist the temptation to retreat into a fit of self-doubt and should instead remain as proactive as ever, asking for telephone updates or debriefs and demonstrating a flexible approach in the face of adversity.

There will inevitably be some companies that carry on regardless, at least for as long as is feasible. For candidates that are called in for interview and feel genuinely anxious about making the journey into an office, for example, I’d advise an honest approach and suggest seizing the initiative to suggest a technology-enabled solution. For those that are happy to attend, preparation will, as always, be key: research the company’s recent statements on how it is dealing with the virus, show empathy and concern about people’s wellbeing, and think about how you will greet your interviewer in the absence of a handshake.

We are living in deeply troubling times but just as many companies and industries are battening down the hatches, there are opportunities to be had elsewhere. Pharmacy, engineering and parts of the retail market are booming, and in some other sectors there will be business leaders seeking to seize an opportunity and grow while the costs of investment are lower.

Career fairs are on hold, events are being called and the opportunities to catch up with potential employers in relaxed, informal gatherings or over coffee are dramatically diminished. Nevertheless, I would advise jobhunters that the same basic rules apply: continue to send in applications, do research, prepare a thoughtful and well-checked CV and covering letter, be available, follow up, be proactive and be willing.

This is also the time to bolster CVs for the future by taking an active role in helping communities fight the coronavirus. We are going to need community activism to get us through this crisis – as many have said, the country is essentially on a war footing. I would encourage candidates to use their innovative and entrepreneurial skills to devise schemes to assist the elderly, NHS workers and anyone else who needs help over the coming weeks and months. When this crisis is over, those who are able to demonstrate to employers that they played an active part in minimising the impact on their community will have the advantage.

Now may not be the best time to be jobhunting, but I’d advise young people not to give up and to instead maintain the same stoic tenacity that has worked for so many jobhunters in the past. As Mark Carney, the outgoing governor of the Bank of England, has said, this is “disruption not destruction”, and life will – eventually – get back to normal.

Ronel Lehmann is Founder and Chief Executive of Finito