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The myth of post-COVID skills

Do our students have the skills to succeed in a post-pandemic world?

BY LAURA FYFE | AUG 11 2021

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?

Post-COVID 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.

Reality check

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
  • Creativity
  • Adaptability
  • Technology
  • Flexibility

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!

ABOUT LAURA FYFE
Laura Fyfe
Laura Fyfe is the skills translation coordinator with co-op, career and experiential education at Brock University, where she has been at the forefront of developing Brock’s campus-wide career competencies framework.
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  1. Thomas Mengel / August 11, 2021 at 17:12

    Thank you, Laura, for your very thoughtful analysis of and reflection on “Post-COVID skills”. While I might agree with your conclusions in the short term (the Post-COVID present), I think the analysis and conclusion in the context of “future-ready skills” fall short. Potential futures develop based on how we anticipate challenges resulting from changes happening at an exponential scale. The required skills certainly include your list of “post-pandemic skills”, but – as I argued elsewhere (Mengel, 2021) – they go far beyond adaptation and need to include competencies in anticipation, inclusive exploration of future scenarios facilitation of co-creative processes, and other foresight competencies that help us build a future that is meaningful to all.
    (Mengel, T. (2021). Leadership for the Future: Lessons from the Past, Current Approaches, and Future Insights. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing; https://www.cambridgescholars.com/news/item/book-in-focus-leadership-for-the-future-lessons-from-the-past-current-approaches-and-future-insights)

  2. Stephen Downes / August 13, 2021 at 18:12

    A few comments…

    Having taken a look, I don’t think a search of the top ten Google results for ‘post-COVID skills’ was the best place to look for lessons learned. The Google search gives us results from siets like McKinsey, Forbes, and topuniversities.com. It would have been better to consult the many reports from government and international bodies, education experts, and colleges and universities – none of which had thr SEO to make it into the Google top ten.

    Additionally, I don’t think the list of the usual suspects trotted out by the Google top ten sources (and numerous others) – you know, critical thinking, teamwork and collaboration, creativity, emotional intelligence, etc. – that have been touted as 21st century skills, digital literacy skills, etc., etc., for the last 20 years or more. There’s nothing about the pandemic that made these any more or less important.

    But most importantly, it wasn’t students who needed to learn post-Covid skills. They’ve been growing up digital and working from home and collaborating, etc., etc. all along. No, my observation has been that the real need for skills development was found in the existing workforce, including *especially* the academic workforce. A generation of academics that did little to prepare for the digital age found themselves thrust unprepared into it, and were forced to learn a lot about *learning* in the 21st century.

    Finally, there *is* a list of post-Covid – not skills, really, but lessons – that were important for both students and the academic workforce, but it’s a much more nuanced list than Forbes or McKinsey provided. It’s well work reading Tony Bates on the subject https://www.tonybates.ca/2020/11/05/10-lessons-for-a-post-pandemic-world-from-covid-19-for-canadian-universities-and-colleges/ and I have added my own thoughts as well https://halfanhour.blogspot.com/2020/12/lessons-from-pandemic.html and there’s more in this detailed set of resources https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ux3lTnUTpzZRuvxE3rAsSQ4Ihub96S8_OYECNh8wv-A/edit#

    I mention these not to get you to follow my links, but to draw attention to the real lessons being learned at all levels: how hard it is to change at first (but it gets easier), the need for open media, the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion (seriously, after the last 18 months we’ve had, how do Forbes and McKinsey miss this?), the need for flexible working conditions and to support diverse needs (and maybe even fair wages for all), the recognition that *society* (and not just ‘students’) benefit from education.

    And when we look back on skills and development some five years or so after the pandemic (which might still be a decade from now; we’re not out of it yet) we might be asking some much more basic questions, such as ‘how to resist wage exploitation (even if you’re a teaching assistant)” or “what do we even mean by a career?” and “how personal professional development matters much more than the ‘skills’ employers ‘require’.” Or “how to live a meaningful life in a post-growth economy”.

  3. Kate / August 19, 2021 at 10:53

    This is a beautiful summation of what so many of us in this field are experiencing! Thank you Laura!