Earlier this year, I was preparing to deliver a presentation to a group of graduate students about future-ready skills and planning for success after grad school. As I went through my slide deck, it occurred to me that the last time I delivered this session was in the months before the COVID-19 pandemic, before the world went virtual.
My presentation focused on employer in-demand skills and strategies for students to translate graduate school skills and experiences into career-ready language and into a format easily digestible by their prospective employers. Since that first presentation, my students, along with the rest of the world, experienced major shifts in the way that just about everything was done; from how they learned in the classroom to how they interviewed for a new job, , to setting up a makeshift home office to live the life of a remote worker.
When I arrived at the section of my presentation covering in-demand skills and saw problem solving, collaboration, teamwork and creativity, I realized that these are the skills students needed before the pandemic. But what about post-pandemic skills?
A quick internet search of the phrase “post-COVID skills” produces pages and pages of articles with titles like 8 Job Skills to Succeed in a Post-Coronavirus World, Thriving After COVID-19: What Skills do Employees Need?, and How to Upgrade Your Skills for the COVID-19 Job Market. At first glance, it may appear that in addition to economic uncertainty and social isolation, the pandemic has also given rise to an entirely new set of skills that job-seekers haven’t encountered before, instantly “under-qualifying” those about to enter the job market.
It is my job to help university students identify, articulate, strengthen and translate their skills from a postsecondary context into a workplace ready one. That means it is also my job to be aware of new, disruptive, or trending “future skills.” If you click on any of the titles above you will find, in fact, that there are very few if any brand new pandemic-specific skills.
A close reading of 10 articles listing post-COVID skills (the first page of the Google search results at the time of writing) shows that the top five most commonly occurring post-pandemic skills are not technological or digital skills inextricably tied to the virtual world. They are:
- Emotional intelligence
What can we extrapolate from this list? We can assume that most employers in most industries are looking for new hires that are self-aware and work well with others, approach challenges and solve problems innovatively, work well in times of change and under pressure, and can navigate technological platforms allowing for a blended (virtual/in-person) working environment. (While “technology” can be widely interpreted, it is worth noting that this skill appeared most in association with virtual meeting software and the MS Office suite.)
Despite the alarming headlines, the vast majority of “post-COVID” skills are really pre-COVID skills imagined through a different lens (a webcam, for example). Pre-pandemic research shows an increasing demand for foundational skills like critical thinking, social perceptiveness and complex problem solving. The core competencies that have been embedded into postsecondary institutions by campus career centres still hold water, even though they may be taught, practiced or reflected upon differently in a virtual setting. In other words:
Myth: the post-COVID graduate must acquire an entirely new skillset to adapt to the post-pandemic labour market.
Reality: the post-COVID graduate has been developing the necessary career-readiness skills and competencies throughout their entire postsecondary experience.
The post-COVID graduate
Do new graduates have these skills? The short answer is yes.
The challenge, however, is that many students do not understand exactly how their postsecondary education is teaching them these skills, and they often struggle to convey this information to their future employers. Unfortunately, the pandemic and the abrupt shift to remote learning seems to compound this problem.
To be successful on their career journey, the pre-COVID student would have to do a few things: identify their strengths, values, interests and skills; discover what industries and occupations they are interested in; ensure they have the skills and experience necessary for their chosen career path (and/or find a way to acquire them); and take active steps toward their goals by creating a resume, networking and conducting a job search.
While doing all of this, a post-COVID student will also have to navigate the practical realities of remote work and the temporary prospect of fewer jobs, and they will be required to not only translate their skills from an academic lens to a career lens, but also be required to adapt their skills to an entirely different medium. For example, collaboration and teamwork were highly valued employability skills before and during the pandemic and will continue to be valued afterwards. What collaboration looks like in a shared workspace versus a remote home office, however, is what makes the translation of “post-COVID skills” different. Similarly, the ways in which an employer can remotely assess work ethic, emotional intelligence and creativity must also shift when team members are isolated and instruction, feedback and communication are virtual.
Articulate, translate and adapt
We know that in-demand skills have remained largely consistent, despite the disruption of the pandemic. We also know that graduating postsecondary students possess the necessary career-ready skills and competencies. What remains is the challenge of helping them, many of whom spent the last year and a half learning and working remotely, to understand and articulate their skills and competencies in a way that will reflect the needs of their future employers, virtual or otherwise.
What can we do?
To help students understand and adapt their skills in a post-COVID world, career centres at postsecondary institutions can:
- Ensure students have continued access to career services and regularly updated information about navigating the changing labour market. Local Workforce Planning Boards and regional economic development offices are great resources.
- Help students understand the value of their education from both an academic and an industry perspective. Consider, for example, the widely transferable skills developed by researching and writing a major paper, such as critical thinking and analysis, effective communication and time management.
- Empower students to create their own career and skill narratives by coaching them to identify and strengthen their skills, describe how they developed their skills and understand why their skills are important.
What did I tell my graduate students? You have what it takes to succeed in a post-COVID world. Do your research, reflect on your skills and don’t believe everything you read!