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Guide to onboard graduates during a pandemic

Lindsey Rowe, Head of People & Programmes Office - SAP UK & Ireland
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With 40% of employers reducing or cancelling placement and internship programmes due to the pandemic, and 15% already anticipating a reduction in their entry-level hiring for 2021, we are seeing how those breaking into the employment market are being hardest hit in terms of workplace opportunities available to them. However, with the Chancellor recently unveiling a £2bn ‘kickstart’ scheme to create more jobs for young people, we are being reminded of the young talent that exists and the urgent need to harness these future skills.

Internships and graduate schemes massively contribute to wider industry growth and development. It’s without doubt that these programmes provide just as many benefits to the employer as they do to the intern and should be a key focus for any organisation looking to move in an upwards trajectory. The intern, or graduate, is taught valuable industry skills and is exposed to the professional working environment opening up a world of possibilities, while employers have access to students who are full of fresh, diverse ideas and have learned the latest skills that can be applied to their business.

But of course, social distancing rules and restrictions have forced organisations to reconsider exactly how they can bring in that new talent as offices remain largely closed or reduced. With more than 50% of employers planning to welcome new starters remotely, businesses are moving to a brave new world of remote induction, online work experience and digital training for their interns and graduates.

The importance of embracing early talent

While the prospect of onboarding graduates and interns may be daunting, for those that can, it should not deter businesses from doing so. Early talent reminds their more experienced counterparts of why they got involved in the industry in the first place; this is no truer than in the tech sector. The drive and energy of former students leaving colleges and universities across the country is contagious, and the ability to inject fresh thinking is refreshing. But that’s not all.

New talent responds, now more than ever, to the way in which the world is moving. As we’ve seen the world become increasingly more digital in just the last three months alone, fresh talent can fill the ever-present digital skills gap. It is therefore vital for organisations to harness the digital-first nature of graduates and interns to move their businesses and services forward in a post COVID-19 world.

One of our most central technologies, for example, is a platform that helps our customers manage significant technological change. The skill most required from our teams to work on such projects is cited as ‘cloud skills’ (59%), further highlighting the growing demand for technology-based knowledge and understanding. It was therefore promising to see that STEM A-Level entries in the UK this year now account for 64% of all courses taken, and computing in particular has seen a surge in popularity, with an uptake increasing by 131% in the space of the past five years.

Onboarding in a digital world

The need to embrace early talent and harness the skills that exist is crystal clear. While this year’s onboarding process for graduates and interns may be different, it doesn’t need to negatively impact those first few days, weeks or months for these new joiners. Having onboarded 60 undergraduates as part of our 2020/21 intake, here are some of my top tips as you start your induction journey:

Don’t overthink it. Whilst it may seem like something that requires deep thought, having a successful onboarding process can work better when simple. The sudden need to convert to a virtual setting meant there was no time to overthink our plans and made us work with what we already had in place. This level of simplicity allows you to be very agile and not delay yourself with barriers, instead focusing only on what is critical, making the overall process smoother.

Consider workarounds and ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD). While equipment issues may have been felt amongst your existing employees, it’s important to consider how this could also impact new joiners. If backlogs with suppliers, for example, are interfering with your plans, consider short term workarounds or BYOD to manage quicker onboarding. It’s likely that everyone has some form of a computer in their household, especially tech-savvy students. Allowing new recruits to use their own equipment when necessary allows them to stay involved even through issues out of your control. The point is to keep them feeling like they are continuously taking part in the work and learning, and that their journey isn’t being stifled.

Communicate. Be open with your new starters and let them know that this is as new to you as it is to them so they can understand the journey, be a part of it and crucially, provide feedback for the future. Communicate frequently using multiple channels and don’t be afraid to drop a call to make sure that everything is going smoothly and that they have no qualms or queries. Know that sometimes new recruits will participate more when they are in smaller groups, so consider splitting them if you have a large cohort.

 Talk to peers and share best practices. The student and graduate employer community is incredibly open and working with organisations like the ISE gives you access to peers to share best practices with and collaborate on new ways of working. This made a huge difference to us as interns had access to online webinars and open town halls to feel more like they were part of the team, whilst learning valuable skills for their internships.

 Celebrate. As you move to a virtual or hybrid virtual environment, celebrate each milestone or achievement regularly and be proud of your organisation and team for taking the leap, knowing the impact your company will have on the future of these graduates or interns. Just as they would come to find out from working on-site, show them that work life is a balance of fun and serious work.

Onboarding during this pandemic and the subsequent road to a new way of working doesn’t have to be something that seems unachievable. For organisations able to continue with their intern and graduate programmes, it is a real opportunity to still harness the immense talent that has become available. As Stephen Isherwood, CEO ISE, pointed out: “placements help students develop the skills employers value and often lead to permanent employment”. So, keep it simple, communicate often and embrace the virtual office, and both your business and the graduates and interns alike will reap the benefits.

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