Entering the workforce now: 4 new ways HR can support first-time employees

First-time employee working with HR at laptop during onboarding session

The period of time between completing one of life's biggest achievements, like obtaining an advanced degree or professional certification, and starting a first job is typically filled with feelings of promise and excitement for that next chapter. But there's often some fear of the unknown mixed in too. I can remember this time in my life like it was yesterday — feeling full of relief and accomplishment and anxiety. And that was a long time ago. Nowadays, people entering the workforce in 2020 and 2021 have experienced more anxiety and fear and not as much promise as those of us in previous years did. That's why it's more critical than ever before that HR teams help alleviate that stress and support first-time employees as they begin their careers.

Let's think about it for a second — it's been over a year since the COVID-1 pandemic started, which means not just one but two separate graduating classes have tried to enter the workforce with this environment as their reality. Couple that with the fact that millions of others lost jobs and began looking for work again and you have a landscape full of uncertainty. In fact, according to Pew Research this extra competition is strongly affecting new workers, with 31 percent of 2020 college grads still unemployed as of fall 2021. That's a significant increase over 2019, when the number was 22 percent.

The bottom line is the impacts of the pandemic are still being felt in the job market, especially among those just starting out. So how can HR change the employee experience to support those new to the workforce and help them feel secure and successful? It takes a combination of being sensitive to the current employment landscape and a coordinated strategy that takes fresh approaches to recruiting, onboarding, and fostering workplace culture. Let's explore.


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1. Adjust how you hire candidates

When hiring, employers will have to consider that in some cases there are no longer geographical barriers stopping people from working in different roles, and in-office activities such as social get-togethers, ping pong tables, office gyms, etc. can't help to convey a certain culture. Instead, culture is defined more broadly by how employees are treated and respected. This needs to be reflected in hiring practices and what organizations prioritize to attract new team members:

  • Social networking: Organizations have been forced to sharpen their online networking presence on professional social platforms like LinkedIn with the need to recruit and hire candidates remotely through the pandemic. The upside to this, however, is that these alternatives have led to an enhanced recruiting toolset and have afforded companies the luxury to cast a wider net and choose candidates from a larger talent pool.
  • Remote work options: Going hand in hand with the previous point, a lot of the hiring occurring is for remote work at least to start, and remote work options for existing employees are being extended through 2021 and beyond. The point is remote work is the new normal for many positions, so organizations need to highlight this flexibility and have the HR technology in place to support it especially when approaching those new to the workforce as it's become an expected option for many.
  • Return to a job seeker's market: For much of the pandemic, job seekers were at a disadvantage in many industries, but this is starting to change as the pandemic is lifting in a lot of parts of the world. And that means competition for top talent is heating up. HR needs to think about what will make their organization stand out in a crowded market while also remembering people's expectations around what that means have changed.

2. Reimagine your onboarding strategy

The onboarding period is the first opportunity for new employees to really start experiencing your workplace culture first-hand, making it that much more important for companies to get this right and start their new hires off on the right foot.  And let's be honest, this is often one of the most difficult things for companies to master and it was difficult to do even before COVID-19. It’s a time of expectation setting, informing the employee about their new role, and helping them navigate the work environment.

  • Engage teams by keeping them informed: Now with even more hybrid and remote work happening across the globe, it is more critical than ever before to foster a culture of communication by developing meaningful and intentional experiences that keep employees engaged and supported. In fact, even before day one, nearly half (45 percent) of Gen Zers expect their employer to send them detailed information about their new role. During their first day on the job, 44 percent expect hands-on training, 43 percent expect to attend a day-one orientation, and 33 percent expect to be provided up front with everything they need to know about the job. HR needs to deliver on these expectations to ensure that first-time employees are retained beyond the first six months or year.
  • Eliminate paperwork challenges: While it has become clear that employees are seeking more flexibility by being able to work from home, the pandemic's impact on organizational wellbeing has made it that much more critical to reassess what makes up the employee experience and ease the onboarding process by removing common barriers like manual steps and paperwork. This SHRM article has some great ideas on how to overcome some of the administrative hurdles with alternative processes to the required paperwork as well as creative ideas on how to make your employees feel part of a team despite being apart from one another. Of course, an automated and centralized HR system is a huge benefit here as well.
  • Focus on reboarding: Forward thinking companies continue to onboard their employees regardless of how long they've been there, which is especially important right now. This is a time of re-welcoming employees to ensure they feel safe and secure in their place of work, and will be doubly important for those new to the workforce in general. This not only improves employee engagement but also increases productivity when employees are given opportunities to continue to grow and learn more in their role with the organization, and provides the kinds of more frequent structured touch points first-time employees in Gen Z expect.

3. Prioritize new hire training and reskilling options

Onboarding doesn't stop at the first week or two of a new hire's employment — it’s a process that continues to evolve all through your people's time at your organization. Obtaining skilled workers continues to be a challenge for some industries. While access to learning and skills development was maintained in some contexts through a quick shift to distance learning during the pandemic, not all skills can be obtained virtually.

That being said, there are many creative ways to professionally develop outside of work that complement your in-person and virtual on-the-job training. Hard skills are one thing, but it also pays to remember that self-management and interpersonal communication are among the top skills that organizations are looking for in candidates in the post-pandemic workplace according to the World Economic Forum.

Ultimately HR needs to be resourceful and creative when providing first-time workers with educational and development opportunities. COVID-19 has widened the skills gap and the dissonance between the education new job seekers have and unrealistic employer expectations, which has led to millions of unfilled openings. Companies like Salesforce are closing this gap in a creative and cost effective way that has also proven to improve retention rates. They are offering what’s known as “last-mile training” where new hires can then gain the specific technical skills and knowledge that are typically obtained through work experience.

In addition to closing these gaps for first-time employees, it's important to give opportunities to explore areas outside their day-to-day responsibilities so they can continue to grow and perhaps find areas of passion outside of their initial education. This is where a strong upskilling and reskilling approach baked into your HR technology can help to both practically fill operational gaps with new talent and also give your teams more flexibility and variety in their work.

4. Lead with empathy to retain talent

Focusing on your people's wellbeing will pay dividends in terms of your organization's efficiency and productivity. According to this 2020 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey, those who report high social wellbeing are three times more likely to say that their mental wellbeing and finances have improved during the pandemic. According to a prediction from UKG's own Chris Mullen, Ph.D.,organizations that will excel in 2021 will be led by compassionate and inclusive management that emphasizes empathy, wellness, and belonging. Getting there requires being able to access the full scope of your people data and look at it in a different way so you can make the right decisions to motivate and retain both first-time and veteran employees.

It's also important to remember that the members of Gen Z entering the workforce now have work-life balance and flexible working top of mind. Other key priorities include support with stress, anxiety, and mental health issues as the pandemic took a toll on emotional and social wellbeing. Just take it from one of our very own Gen Z colleagues here at UKG, Megan Grenier, who has written here about the emotions she is experiencing going back into an office along with great tips that organizations can follow to help you manage your organization's return.

Conclusion: Some thoughtful choices now will help those new to work excel

Although the pandemic brought a tremendous amount of loss and unforeseen difficulty to organizations and employees alike, there are many examples where flexibility, perseverance, and thoughtfulness have brought positive change to new ways of thinking and performing HR activities. Nowhere is this adaptable mentality more important than when hiring first-time employees and guiding them to success. If you can start their careers off strong, you will be able to build the next generation of leaders for your organization while others miss out on the opportunity by staying with more traditional recruiting, onboarding, and retention practices.

To get these processes working together harmoniously end to end, you need HR technology that supports your organization as much as you support first-time employees. If you're looking to get more value out of your hiring processes and your HR technology in general, our UKG Value Estimator tool will help you make the case.

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