My daughter is graduating in engineering from university next month. This should be one of the most exciting periods of her life, full of high expectations and hopes for the future. For most graduates though, the workplace is looking very different from what they might have expected a year ago. According to the Financial Times last week, a survey of UK university students in their final year found that 30 per cent had lost their job or had an offer of one cancelled or deferred. The situation is even worse for those who had not already lined up a plan. Two-thirds of UK graduates have seen a job application withdrawn or put on hold because of the pandemic. 

Whilst this could be a bleak period for some, it could also be a huge opportunity for companies to embrace the changes that this pandemic is forcing on our workplaces and how we work.  It is to be remembered what happens when companies stop taking in their annual cohorts of graduates for a few years – and then feel the huge gaps in capability in middle management and lead engineers several years later.  It is also a massive opportunity to capitalise on the efficiency benefits of technology, which is an area that current graduates are highly skilled at and comfortable with.

It has been interesting to see what the response has been by the big banking firms, as where they lead others may follow (if they can afford it). According to the FT, the response so far has been mixed. Accountancy firm BDO has furloughed its first-year trainees, and banks Santander and Lloyds have cancelled summer internships in the UK.  But the big Wall Street banks, including Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase will bring in thousands of new trainees on schedule in the autumn. “We want to be there for our communities. We need new blood to make sure that we can forge ahead,” says Ryland McClendon, who runs career development programmes for JPMorgan. In the construction sector, there are encouraging signs with the ECITB boosting graduate support to the tune of £5m.

The young engineers graduating from our universities this summer should fair better than most.  There is still a huge demand for the technical and problem-solving skills that they have developed.  We will need these skills to help us emerge from this crisis and it would be a short-sighted shame to stop recruiting them. The challenge will be to think about ways to engage and motivate them when perhaps they must work from home for the first six months of their career.  How to build teams when the interactions are mostly virtual.  To question whether we are bridging a gap until ‘normal’ business is resumed or will there be permanent changes to the ways we work together that may even be more efficient and have a better work-life balance.  How can we consult these young people on the best ways to build the skills that they need for their careers, knowing that they are far more technology literate than us?  By thinking about these questions, we can create great opportunities for our young engineers to feel incredibly motivated to contribute to their futures. The alternative is that we could have a lost generation of bright young people who feel that we have let them down.  I don’t want my daughter, or your children, to feel that way.

Karen Cherrill – Partner Kingsfield Academy