IBM's Jenny Taylor

@IBM's @JennyTaylor369  reflects on the impact of COVID-19 on recruitment and onboarding, and suggests some ways businesses can evolve to fulfil the changing needs of young professionals and apprentices.

Long-standing skills shortage issues and COVID-19 combine in perfect storm, shaking up recruitment strategies

The long-discussed but rarely addressed issue of the UK skills gap has come to a head. The impact of COVID-19 on both work and consumer habits has led organisations to the realisation that agility and digital transformation are existential capabilities, and that they do not necessarily have the people to cope. According to the Open University (OU) Business Barometer 2020, three in five organisations (61%) say that they are not as agile as they need to be because of shortfalls in their skills.

Simultaneously, COVID-19 has also led to what is likely the single largest changes  to the way we work in our lifetime. Across industries, teams have had to adapt. Businesses have seized the opportunity to address their skills gap and recruit their way to recovery. The same OU report revealed that organisations spent £6.6 billion in 2020 on the skills shortage, a significant rise from £4.4 billion in 2019, and that nearly half (48%) of employers acknowledged that apprenticeships and work-based learning initiatives will be vital to their organisation’s recovery over the next year.

Given the importance being placed on the recruitment of early professionals and apprentices in bridging the skills gap, it is important to understand that for many, the only interview and onboarding process they will experience is one shaped by COVID-19 and remote working. Yet despite the fact that many organisations have been working remotely for over a year, processes can still be stuck in an ‘old normal’ mindset.

Talent teams need to adapt, transforming the entire recruitment and onboarding process to be virtual-first and at the same time preparing for a future where the process will likely be a very different hybrid model.

Virtual-first recruitment and onboarding

We can’t replace the feeling of face-to-face interactions for early professionals. Indeed, we shouldn’t try to. It’s important to examine each aspect of the recruitment and onboarding process, deciding what works and should be adapted for virtual, and what should be replaced or introduced.

Here are some lessons we have learned in the last year at IBM UK: 

  • Make attraction events specific and targeted: We now run very focused virtual events. For example, in January we ran an attraction event for diversity recruitment over LinkedIn Conceal. We have a very active BAME community who recently ran an attraction event that took the format of an online panel discussion and Q&A, which proved very popular.
  • Ensure the recruitment process is frictionless: Switching to running virtual assessment centres is a big task. We’ve found that keeping a familiar format with interviews and group exercises, as well as informal chat meetings with current early professionals, helps. It’s also crucial to keep the tech requirements to a minimum to make sure everyone can participate Get personal with inductions: Mass face to face induction with upwards of 50 people in a room were the norm previously, but now they can easily be split into smaller online groups, with a chance to make this key touchpoint more interactive and engaging
  • Collaborative digital tools lead to better engagement: Become fluent in the use of digital virtual collaboration tools to keep the onboarding process short and punchy. Interesting functions like breakout rooms or tools like Mural to turn the real classroom into a virtual one can lead to much stronger participation
  • Get creative to avoid camera fatigue: Stimulating content will help ensure that early professionals and apprentices stay focused engaged. We got creative, using casual fast-paced scavenger hunts and 'draw last night’s dinner' warm-ups to more applied but different sessions on business psychology and philosophy fundamentals
  • Convey your culture: As a result of the pandemic, there is an even greater focus on mental health now, with more frequent one-to-one check ins and social activities such as cooking online, quizzes and even a Harry Potter Escape room event to foster a community spirit. This is important, not only to keep the collective team’s spirits high, but on an individual basis for new joiners who may never have experienced any company culture before 

Successfully adapting leads to positive results

At IBM UK, we very quickly transitioned our process and have run all of our recruitment and onboarding online since March 2020. The results have been truly surprising.

We are finding that our virtual recruitment events are more popular than the face-to-face events in terms of the sheer numbers that we have attending. A school event in which I participated just before Christmas attracted over 2,000 attendees and the engagement was very high. When it comes to interviews, we haven’t had a single no-show, which was a frequent issue when candidates had to travel to our offices.

Satisfaction scores for virtual inductions were higher than ever before, with a four percent year on year rise. Our apprentices have loved the new virtual learning environment and end-of-course feedback was our best ever.

One unexpected bonus is that our early professionals and apprentices not only expect and demand virtual support, they emerge from their induction training fully fluent in using digital tools and in how we virtually collaborate across the IBM team, meaning they’re ready to put their best foot forward as soon as they start.

Preparing for an uncertain future

The immediate future is uncertain. A vaccine gives hope for a return to face-to-face interaction for current and new recruits in the future, but a hybrid approach will likely become standard for many organisations.

National Apprenticeship Week returns, albeit virtually with a different context surrounding the event. Apprenticeships can change lives. For the employer, apprenticeships can provide motivated employees at all levels who have the means to develop skills relevant to their organisation. Apprenticeships are proven to raise productivity levels and there is now a wide range of standards available to cover roles in every industry sector.  For the apprentice, apprenticeships provide the unique opportunity to "earn while you learn" whilst also working towards a qualification. They are the perfect vehicle to acquire the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in any chosen industry.

Jenny Taylor, Foundation Manager in charge of Early Professional Programmes, at IBM UK’s

Jenny Taylor reflects on the impact of COVID-19 on recruitment and onboarding, and suggests some ways businesses can evolve to fulfil the changing needs of young professionals and apprentices.

More information on IBM’s open opportunities for school leavers and apprentices 

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