14 May 2020

The coronavirus pandemic and the changing nature of jobs and career paths for students and early-career workers

Chair: Mr Emerson Csorba

Ditchley’s virtual programme is designed in response to the pandemic and the dramatic effects it is having on our lives. The programme considers the impact on our personal lives, our communities and changes in wider society. We start with a focus on individuals, communities, and, in this session, on the impact of the pandemic on talent and social networks.  

The focus of May is on communities and the economy as an aggregation of communities connected by systems. In time this will progress to a broader focus on the systems underpinning societies, from ones we can determine such as the economic, to systems we depend upon – the climate. At the core of this programme is an ambition to understand the challenge and questions the pandemic raises for democratic societies. What the pandemic is surfacing as to what people care about and why, and how can democracies respond? 

In this Ditchley session, a group of leaders in talent and inclusion, higher education, technology and finance came together to reflect on the challenges facing students and early-career workers – particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds – within the evolving coronavirus pandemic. The focus was on determining what is meant by the term ‘talent,’ although much of the discussion in this session focused on the role of social networks (both formal and informal) in a person’s career progression.  

Despite concerted efforts being made by those within the call (schools, universities, educational programmes) to rapidly create inclusive blended learning environments, there was a sense that without more radical intervention, the pandemic will adversely impact the creation of informal social networks that support the creation of opportunities for disadvantaged young people. Participants worried about a ‘survival of the fittest’ outcome where a very large number of students compete for scarce job opportunities, access being greater for those with pre-existing connections to jobs. Nevertheless, there was agreement that the moves made over the coming months will be vital in shaping the opportunities for young people and that much remains to be determined.  


Degrees of separation 

In his research on the strength of weak ties, the sociologist Mark Granovetter found that weak, rather than close, ties are helpful in a person landing a job. In other words, it is not one’s close friends but friends of friends – individuals two degrees removed in a network – who provide links into new job opportunities. Participants were concerned in this discussion that the pandemic is reducing opportunities for informal networking. There may be less room for serendipity in the online learning environment, where calls need to be scheduled. No longer is it possible for a student to speak with a lecturer following a class or to introduce themselves to others within their physical classrooms. 

Generally, there was a sense that in-person environments are more conducive to serendipity than online environments, but there was not wholehearted agreement on this point. Participants acknowledged that research into these new Zoom learning environments is only beginning. Others remarked that on Zoom and similar platforms, every person is given an identical box on a screen – a potentially ideal environment for those exercising individual agency within the classroom. In corporate environments, there is less time for informal office discussion, and it is unclear whether this levels the playing field across workers or makes it even more difficult to observe the flow of power. Those with pre-existing social networks may be rewarded within and following the pandemic, for instance through access to jobs not posted online.  

Participants characterised this moment as one where ‘Everyone feels lost – we are unsettled.’ There was general agreement that there is opportunity in being unsettled and that now may be the time to affirm new values conducive to better access and inclusion within universities and the workforce. As it stands, teachers are unprepared to capitalise on these opportunities; many are still adapting to the virtual world and are not thinking about the range of possible impacts on disadvantaged students. Without awareness on the part of teachers and administrators, it may be that the mainly confident students speak up in classrooms and demonstrate resilience when confronted with challenges in their learning environments. Participants indicated that partnerships between universities, corporations and research foundations could help to increase awareness and build networking skills on the part of teachers and students – but that such collaboration is urgently needed in the short rather than long term.  


Time to organise 

A key question raised was ‘Who can organise?’. Participants found that now may be the moment for capable organisers to create new links between people and organisations (universities and the workforce). Several examples were shared as to formal and informal network opportunities already emerging which seek to help disadvantaged students or early-career workers. A recent online meeting of the Association For Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers, which engaged more than 100 individuals, is one such case in point. Activation of role models was identified as key component of a response strategy to help disadvantaged students, but time is of the essence. Careers advisors for year twelve students or even younger were identified as a key group to engage.  

This may be the time to pilot and pioneer new systems focused on access and inclusion between universities and the workforce. Alongside Granovetter, the sociologist Ron Burt was raised in the discussion, given his work on brokerage and closure. Brokers between otherwise disconnected networks may be more important than ever in the coronavirus environment. It is not just that new connections (brokerage) are needed between students and employers in this environment, but also that communities should be developed around these new connections (closure). Participants demonstrated some faith that senior business people are more open to such links and ideas right now but that this window may only be temporary. The activation of these organisers in the short term would be a key move to build new networks and opportunities over the long term.  

If organisers act now – organising over a period of weeks rather than months – they may bring about shifts in how talent is seen and engaged by employers, creating new links in what is an unusually malleable environment.  

Participants: Emerson Csorba, Chief of Staff, The Ditchley Foundation; Mariatu Davies, Mechanical Engineering Student, University of Birmingham; Yvette Forrester, Project Manager, EMEA Regional Change Group, The Bank of New York Mellon; Tony Sewell, CEO, Generating Genius; Damien Smith, Deputy Director of Research for Economics, ESRC; Catherine Vollgraff Heidweiller, Head of Quantum Computing Partnerships (UK), Google; Professor Nicola Wilkin, School of Physics and Astronomy and Director of Education for the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, University of Birmingham; Lord David Willetts, President, Resolution Foundation; Katie Williams, Major Events & Projects Lead, The Ditchley Foundation.

The text is a summary of the discussion. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.