Young workers are being left adrift — business needs to throw them a life jacket

Young workers are being left adrift — business needs to throw them a life jacket
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Young people may take a decade to recover from the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on their lives. Postponed exams and school closures have meant that many young people are choosing to put their careers on pause, while rising unemployment rates are cutting pathways to professional opportunities for new graduates.

Even young people who have been able to find work are struggling. The remote shift has meant individuals are missing out on developing core “soft skills” and are rapidly feeling a sense of disconnectedness due to technology overload. In fact, one survey shows that nearly half of Gen Z workers report having communication issues at work and trouble getting the resources necessary to thrive. It's no surprise then that mental health for young people has deteriorated the most since the health crisis first began.

We know that certain demographics have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, but because young people are deemed low-risk from the virus, they're often overlooked in the discussion around inclusion — and that's a problem. Young people will be the ones who build the next normal, and if we don't give them the tools to grow now, we're limiting the possibility of a more innovative and fairer future. Moreover, if we can't make our workplaces open to young people, it signals that those spaces aren't accessible to other groups either (for example career shifters and the elderly.)

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Here's how businesses can plant the seeds of inclusion and integrate young people in the workforce of tomorrow:

Career development has to be an integral part of your company

Millennials have received more pay cuts than other generations in the pandemic, and more concerning, young people's pay could be lower for three years after it subsides. Not only are young people at a noticeable economic disadvantage, their personal development could be limited if they can't pay for it themselves, which has a direct knock-on effect on their careers. To bring this gap, founders need to make training a priority for young staff.

Before jumping into workshops and meetings, it's important to recognize that young workers may not yet have identified the best approach to their own learning. Rather than bombard them with information that they can't effectively apply, devote some time to discussing approaches they can use to practice and eventually master new skills. For instance, the Power Learning Tool is a science-backed framework that teaches employees how to capitalize on learning opportunities. Working through the various steps, employees can form intentional learning habits that are unique to them and help them uptake and enact new skills.

In the fast-paced startup space, where employees often don't have the time to train others above and beyond what's necessary, covering low-cost skills training with platforms goes a long way. Udemy, Skillshare, and Brilliant are a few of the best platforms, and are reasonably priced, so a worthwhile investment for any growing business and young staff.

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Take an interest in employees' ambitions — regardless of whether they extend beyond their current role. Ask them about their values, who inspires them, and what their purpose is. Based on the responses, offer them participation in internal company activities that align, such as: workshops, fireside chats, presentations, and cross-departmental meetings. You could equally let young employees rotate their roles, allowing them to develop their preferred skill set through exploration.

Intergenerational mentorship can be a step up the career ladder

The first three months of a job are crucial for new employees. It's when they socialize, get comfortable in their role, and get to grips with the dynamics of the company. In a remote setting, it's harder to forge bonds with people who may already know one another. This is a stark barrier considering that one-third of millennials think socializing with colleagues helps them move up the career ladder. On top of that, not being in an office prevents young staff from learning as they watch more senior colleagues in action.

In response, assigned mentorship can integrate and upskill young employees, especially if mentors come from managerial positions. Research shows that properly coached new professionals develop faster because their learning has a more defined direction — which is why over two in three Fortune 500 companies have mentoring programs in place, including Boeing, General Electric, and Intel. Such schemes are also powerful in eliminating age biases and helping existing leadership appreciate the value and potential of fresh ideas and experiences. And they make employees feel less isolated, fostering closer relationships between colleagues.

Mentorship needs to be structured — there should be regular catch-ups, a database of learning materials, and clear plans to capitalize on the mentorship program. These could include inviting mentees to join meetings with higher-ups, connecting them with people in their network — inside or outside of the company, and setting up opportunities for mentees to practice newly-learned skills. Mentors could additionally invite mentees to join any online tech communities they're involved with, for example female mentees may be interested in the likes of Elpha, WomenTech Network, and Femstreet. Mentors should also have regular open office hours where mentees can get feedback and support.

Repurpose technology to promote soft skills

The remote revolution has deprived young people of learning soft skills — technology is so rife they have less room to exercise interpersonal skills outside of digital devices. This absence jeopardizes their careers just as soft skills are becoming essential in the workplace — a report from Deloitte states that "soft skill-intensive occupations will account for two-thirds of all jobs by 2030."

Find ways to nurture these capabilities within the digital environment. Start by providing interactive sessions around communication, leadership, and teamwork. You could use VR to role play scenarios where young workers have to present a product to clients, update management on team data or give constructive feedback to colleagues; VR can also engage young employees more than classroom-style learning — studies have shown that people feel four times more emotionally connected to VR content.

Zoom fatigue is causing mental blocks, so switch up meetings with phone calls instead of solely video calls. Changing the medium can encourage young employees to concentrate on their vocal communication without relying on facial expressions or hand gestures to convey what they mean. It could additionally improve their time management, as they won't be required to be at their desk but will still have to be on-time and prepared.

Young people are primed to cope with change; they're tech-literate and bring a perspective that keeps companies evolving, not just going. Yet, they risk being left behind in the future of work. If businesses don't take steps to incubate this group, the new normal will be formed without accommodating the people who will live in it the longest. That said, with the right map, founders can help young people find their footing and anchor an entire generation in limbo.

Rachel Sheppard is the director of global marketing at global pre-seed accelerator Founder Institute, and co-founder of the Female Founder Initiative, a program launched in 2016 as a means of offering support, funding, and visibility to female founders.