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For most recent graduates, the prospect of starting a job after university is exciting yet onerous. Exciting because after facing several rounds of interviews, tests and — usually — rejections, successful trainees can finally breathe a sigh of relief. Onerous, however, because of the daunting breadth of what there is to learn in the world of work. This mix of emotions is normal, but the pandemic has amplified them.

I started my graduate scheme in communications and advocacy at BP in September 2020, with my first rotation in corporate reporting. Given a precarious graduate jobs market, I consider myself lucky — BP went to lengths to reassure new recruits that the programme would proceed. According to research by Milkround, a graduate careers site, only 18 per cent of 2020 graduates had been able to secure jobs before graduating, compared with 60 per cent usually doing so before the pandemic.

Once they get stuck into the job, graduates battle anxieties and fears that come from not yet understanding corporate etiquette — a state compounded by working from home. I felt paranoid: was it best to try to figure things out alone as much as possible? Should I check in with the team to actively show that I am working? What if I am not able to complete something in time because I have to prioritise another task?

I eventually found my feet through my team and manager as they actively encouraged me to quiz, probe and ask for clarification, specifically due to the nature of remote working as a new joiner.

Lloyd Harry-Davis joined the Financial Times as a graduate trainee on the Maisie Hylton Fellowship
Lloyd Harry-Davis is a graduate trainee at BP © Charlie Bibby/FT

Crisis of confidence

Insecurities stem from the lack of in-person interaction and the reassurance visibility offers. “It sounds so basic but when you’re in an office and you have a question, you just lean over and ask, ‘hey, how do you do this?’” says Alex Malti, a 2019 graduate who started his job at Good e-Learning, a sales company, in June.

A trainee lawyer who started at a City firm this September describes how he was told to be more confident in the work he produced. “I probably carry myself as less confident because I’m not yet used to this environment and it’s scary,” he says. He adds that “there’s definitely the pressure to always be available at first”, but he found it hard to know what was expected of a new starter who has no physical blueprint of how things work. 

Not everybody feels this way. Another graduate says remote working has made it much less frightening to approach different people in his company by eliminating daunting “corner offices”. He also believes the pandemic has heightened sensitivity to mental health. According to Deloitte’s Global Millennial Survey, 46 per cent of Gen Z reported anxiety or stress about their job/career prospects, and 43 per cent of Gen Z reported anxiety or stress about their longer-term financial future.

For many graduates, starting work from home has robbed them of the team spirit that comes from beginning a new stage of life as part of a cohort. For some careers in sectors such as law, trainees typically spend a year together in law schools before joining their firms. For other industries and professions, graduates rely on other activities such as inductions or trips away that allow friendships to grow. 

Ife Ojomo at Vodafone says she finds using less formal channels of communication, such as instant messaging, helps to break barriers
Ife Ojomo at Vodafone says she finds using less formal channels of communication, such as instant messaging, helps to break barriers

Ife Ojomo, a software engineering graduate who started in September at UK telecoms group Vodafone, says: “Hearing from the graduates of last year, Vodafone has a massive graduate community in the sense that they are all 'onboarded' together for one week in the Newbury campus,” despite their allocated offices. “Everyone experiences that together,” she says.

Since this could not take place in 2020, Ms Ojomo found that using less formal channels of communication, such as instant messaging, has helped to break barriers. “That’s where people feel more comfortable to be themselves,” she says.

Creative management

Companies recognise the challenges for both graduates and their line managers and are making efforts to provide support to ensure the best possible experience. Dan Tingle, new talent and Stem manager at National Grid, an energy company, says: “All line managers have regular formal and informal check-ins, with more virtual coffee breaks and catch-ups too. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach and we’ve found it’s been crucial to continue checking in and working with [graduates] to ensure they’re getting the support they need.”

Hywel Ball, UK chair at EY, the professional services firm, says it’s important graduates feel part of EY while working remotely, so “we’re providing more one-to-one touchpoints for students with their line managers and coaches. Creating a sense of community is absolutely key.”

Being included in a team can help graduate trainees feel a sense of belonging, especially when it is not possible to meet in the office. Ama Badu, who started her editorial traineeship at publishing house Faber & Faber in January last year, says she benefited from the relatively small size of the team she was placed in. “[Faber] is small — which I 100 per cent think makes a difference,” she says. “Because of the size of it, it’s very much like a family.”

For Ms Badu, colleagues’ encouragement gave her confidence to pursue ambitious projects, such as developing the website for the FAB Prize, which Faber awards to illustrators and writers in children’s publishing who have not been published before and are from under-represented backgrounds in the industry. “My manager says, ‘we’ve got this website, what can you do with it?’,” she says. “There was real belief in me.” After her traineeship ended, Ms Badu was kept on at Faber as the prize website editor and as an editorial assistant.

Trial and error

If there is a correlation between encouragement and performance, it depends on the type of company as well as the size. Mr Malti, who works in a small sales company, says: “I definitely do get supported with the training I need but a lot of it you have to figure out yourself because there are just not enough resources to handle what’s happening [with the pandemic].” 

Alex Malti at Good e-Learning says the lack of in-person interaction can be unsettling because you can't lean over to a nearby colleague to ask for help
Alex Malti at Good e-Learning says the lack of in-person interaction can be unsettling because you can't lean over to a nearby colleague to ask for help

However, he adds that he has been given a lot of freedom to learn things on his own, “which has been really good for my development”. 

Remote working will remain in some form, including for graduate trainees. Companies and managers will need to review and adapt their schemes so new starters can feel included when away from the office. For those like myself, who have started their working lives in this isolated, digital way, entering workplaces once the opportunity arises will mean recalibrating these quiet months — and not taking the physical office for granted.

Skills support for students

After the first coronavirus lockdown, more than half of the UK’s final-year students lost the jobs and internships they had lined up for the summer, writes Amy O’Brien. With the aim of filling this gap, Avado, a professional academy, developed FastFutures, a 12-week free online professional skills programme for 18 to 24-year-olds structured around self-paced learning and group work.

Fully funded by businesses keen to invest in a more diverse workforce, founding partners include BT, Barclays, AstraZeneca, and NHS Health Education England.

“We wanted to give people who might not have contacts through their parents or education networks equal access to employers at a time when it’s even harder to reach them,” says Matthew Ansbro, FastFutures’ managing director. The application process prioritises under-represented groups: of the first programme, which finished in December, 47 per cent of learners were from black and minority-ethnic backgrounds, and 55 per cent from lower socio-economic backgrounds. 

“I was able to fit the 12 hours of online learning a week around my duties as a secondary carer,” says 23-year-old Pria Duncan-Benington, who was among the first cohort. Upon completion, learners select an employer for a mock interview and feedback: Ms Duncan-Benington chose Barclays. “I felt much more confident presenting myself after I’d interviewed once. It taught me things you just don’t learn at school,” she says. “I’ve had a few other job interviews off the back of the course — it’s definitely made me more employable.”

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