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For our youngest professionals, those just entering the workforce after graduating from college, COVID-19 couldn’t have come at a worse time. Just as these young people prepared to enter a working world with low unemployment and vast opportunity, the coronavirus pulled the rug out from under businesses around the world. Suddenly, new graduates must compete with laid off seasoned workers for fewer jobs in a changed work environment filled with virtual work and heightened safety protocols. How are they adapting? What, exactly, is the pandemic doing to the workforce of the future?

Generation Z and Millennials in the Workforce 2020

The perceptions, traits, and preferences of Millennials (aged 26 – 40 in 2020) and Generation Z (25 years old and younger) were shaped by defining events in each generation’s youth, including economic disruptions. For Millennials, the recession of the early 1980s was later followed by the dot-com boom (and bust) of 1999. For Generation Z, 9/11, two wars, and a financial crisis created uncertainty throughout their childhood. 

These youngest workers also grew up in a digital world, with a command of digital, mobile, and social media technologies and communications. For Gen Z and Millennial workers, there is a blurred or nonexistent line between the traditional work/life boundaries. 

As a group, Millennials are ambitious and eager to lead. In fact, about 28 percent of Millennials hold leadership positions at work today. Generation Z is newest to the workforce, a large generation of racially and ethnically diverse people who place a premium on inclusion, independence, entrepreneurship, and commitment to solving social issues such as racial equality and global warming. 

These groups are both disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic and well-suited to successfully adapt to the changes. 

Young Professionals and COVID-19

According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, Generation Z has been hardest hit by COVID-19, with half of the oldest Gen Zers (ages 18 and older) reporting that they or someone in their household have lost a job or taken a cut in pay because of the outbreak. About 40 percent of Millennials reported the same. The Center explains, “An analysis of jobs data showed that young workers were particularly vulnerable to job loss before the coronavirus outbreak, as they were overrepresented in high-risk service sector industries.” 

Older Gen Zers who were poised to enter the workforce have had to scramble to find jobs that may not be exactly what they had envisioned just a few short months before. Others are facing delayed start dates and unanticipated remote work. Working Millennials, like so many across the country, may be laid off or furloughed and temporarily turning to lower-paying essential jobs (food or package delivery) or unemployment to cover monthly bills. Amid this uncertainty, a wave of 20- and 30-something professionals have moved back in with their parents to weather this storm. 

Adaptations that Align with Future Workplace Trends

Because of coronavirus, employers have changed policies and procedures related to every step of the employee journey, from recruiting and onboarding through development and engagement at work. Young professionals have had to adapt – and the result may just have a silver lining that well-aligns today’s workforce with future workplace trends that will last.

  • Shifting Skill Needs and Competency Development. A recent Gartner survey of learning and development leaders found that about 40 percent of the workforce has needed new skills due to changes to work brought on by COVID-19. The move to remote work is one new reality and SHRM urges hiring managers to “ask questions about a candidate’s resourcefulness, autonomy, self-motivation, proactive collaboration, and written and verbal communication.”

Future Workforce: A need for well-developed soft skills was already tagged as important for future workforce success, as companies increasingly navigate a shrinking global marketplace where technology and automation take on more of the rote tasks of getting work done. Young professionals that shore up soft skills now – and understand that the top-desired skills shift with the times – will build important competencies early in their careers and will be more open to learning new skills in the future. 

  • Remote Work Adoption. This one is almost cliché at this point in the COVID-19 conversation, but back in February few companies freely embraced a work-from-home model. It’s not a new concept, but the pandemic accelerated the conversation – and reality – for many white-collar workplaces around the world. And young professionals helped make that happen. Rich Cavagnaro, CEO of Adedge Water Technologies in Atlanta, describes his company’s transition: “Because we moved my Millennial people into management positions, we were able to transition so easily to a remote way of doing business – it really was quite remarkable and fascinating how easy we migrated to being a remote workforce.”

Future Workforce: Some companies are divesting themselves of office real estate, embracing the work from home model. Others are actively exploring hybrid models and broader definitions of core working hours, both to improve the health safety of employees at work and to engage younger workers who prefer flexible work schedules and work spaces. Remote work is a natural fit for young professionals and Millennial leaders. 

  • Digital Employee Engagement. HR and hiring managers have had to define virtual onboarding on the fly, quickly adapting best practices to a remote environment. The same is true for employee engagement of existing workers. We’ve learned that early and frequent communication and attention is important to set the stage for success. And, while Zoom and similar platforms are helpful to put names to faces, build team rapport, and advance projects, too much of this good thing can be exhausting; balance is important. Nevertheless, Josh Bersin just wrote about two studies that found employee engagement to be at the highest level ever measured, as companies “lean in” to the pandemic and invest in their people. For younger employees, this extra attention and recognition may be just the support they need to build the relationships, skills, and habits to thrive in a connected culture (especially when many of those connections are digital).

Future Workforce: Bersin reminds us of a persistent truth. “People are the most resilient part of the organization: when they are supported, the entire company can thrive.” Young people are wired for digital connections. By participating in – and shaping – a digitally connected work culture, young professionals are helping establish the groundwork for enduring business connections within and beyond the company. 

How is COVID-19 changing the way you do business? Which new policies and procedures do you expect to keep long-term? How are you harnessing and supporting your youngest professionals to position them to thrive as the workforce of the future?

If you’re rethinking how you prepare your employees and company for future success, read our Talent Management Strategies to Build Your Future Workforce white paper. Or contact us to find out how Avilar’s WebMentor Skills™ can support your skills development and competency management program. 


Bridging Generational Differences in the Workforce
Generation Z is Here. Are You Ready?
Why You Should Boost Soft Skills in Your Organization
How to Bring the Best Lessons from COVID-19 Back to Work