The 21st century has produced some life-changing advances and inventions, from electric and self-driving cars to smart technology. We have social networks and sharing platforms such as YouTube and Facebook, and are making amazing progress in our development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics. New technology is constantly changing the world as we know it.
It is not an exaggeration to say that some of those incredible, futuristic ideas in shows like Futurama are becoming our reality already. Our advances in less than three decades are laying a groundwork that could dwarf the visionary creations predicted by the writer Matt Groening.
Simply put, life in the 4th industrial revolution has changed dramatically and rapidly. All these developments have allowed us to not just change the way we socialize with and meet one another, but also the way companies and employees are capable of working.
However, before this revolution could end, we have been thrown into what could possibly be a sort of 5th industrial revolution. A disease that is proving to be worthy of a Nostradamus prediction, COVID-19, has completely restructured our workforce. In three short months, we have experienced unprecedented change. On one hand, we seem to be heading towards a colossal global recession that would exceed the 2008 housing market crisis. On the other, progressive decisions regarding how we work and live appear to have expedited much-needed reform in many sectors.
For example, while education has been steadily moving towards online options, the whole system was completely overhauled in just a few weeks. The faculty of engineering and applied science at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, had a number of online or blended courses prior to the pandemic, but the administration took more than 200 undergraduate courses online. Classes were cancelled for just one week to prepare for the shelter-in-place decrees from experts and governments, but then this new normal began. It was all in response to this disease, rather than the fact that gen-z learners have been known to prefer YouTube education to one involving boards and chalks or markers.
Then, of course, there is the dramatic shift in employment. Remote work and work from home (WFH) have been frowned upon by a majority of employers and managers. However, in a matter of days, businesses transitioned in-person meetings to screens using Zoom, Skype, Google hangout/meet, and a dozen other video conferencing platforms. For the sake of health and safety, offices were moved to kitchen tables and bedroom dressers, and employees suddenly needed to figure how to adjust to this new workplace and workstyle. Again, COVID-19 has forced what was a gradual and unwilling change to become an immediate reality.
Unfortunately, one area that is struggling to adjust is the place where universities and industries intersect: the talent supply chain. In recent weeks, a large number of jobs for new grads, internships, and summer jobs have been either cancelled or delayed in response to the challenges and uncertainties surrounding this pandemic. The situation is so bad that there are now sites, platforms, and social media accounts solely dedicated to aggregating the latest updates on what is on and what is gone.
Academics and industries in demand of tech and engineering talent should have every reason to be doubly concerned with the cancellations of “professional experience” (PE) positions, such as internships, coops, and summer jobs.
With the rise of the gig economy, combined with the out-of-this-world (and I mean literally) thinking of genius entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, we seem to be constantly pushing the frontiers of technology — both in terms of reach and capability. It is no surprise that engineering and STEM fields account for many of the top jobs of the future. In this mode of operation, the fight for tech talent has been real. PE positions not only allow for a better selection mechanism to find the next set of human resource acquisitions (companies like Google and Facebook have long used their summer PE positions like a three- to four-month “job interview”) but also help with the employers’ brand and culture awareness campaigns on college campuses. Additionally, students who engage in PE instances typically make better education choices (e.g., elective courses they pick after their PE), perform better academically, and have a higher chance of landing a satisfying job after their studies, even if it’s not by going back to where they spent their PE months. Though, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the intern retention rate is approximately 70%.
The value of this system is very clear for all stakeholders — students, academic institutions, and the companies all win. This is what we can call a “beyond-win-win-win” scenario. And now, all that is in jeopardy. The loss associated with the mass reduction of PE opportunities for our post-secondary students is very hard to estimate. However, a “wait and see” strategy is not acceptable. So, the question is what should we do?
Students and New Graduates
- Adjust and recalibrate – Have an open mind with regard to your PE expectations. Treat this time as an opportunity to challenge yourself to be a problem-solver. Consider opportunities in other sectors and geos (possibly even international). Flex your entrepreneurial muscles. Train your inner intrapreneur. Remember, weak economic times have created some of most valuable and innovative companies we know today.
- Create goals – Be innovative. Start that personal or volunteer project. Do not let this time go to waste.
- Go online – Explore, network, and connect. Figure out how best to engage with the world around you as you practice social distancing.
- Reach out – Have open conversations with university career centers and corporate relations offices. They know the pain points and are talking to all levels of government, working to minimize the negative impact of COVID-19. This means they are also working on new ways to assist PE students during this time.
- Be open minded – Apply design thinking and exercise a flexible and creative approach towards your 2020 and 2021 hires. You never know. What you learn here out of sheer necessity might actually benefit you in the long run.
What we all need to realize is that we cannot sit idly by. This pandemic has taken so many lives already and now is threatening our livelihoods. We each need to figure out whether our actions in this moment are paving the road that leads toward Futurama or disaster of Nostradamus proportion.
Jacquelyn Adams, an IEEE Senior member, is a nationally-recognized leader in employee learning and development. Jacquelyn is the CEO and Founder of Ristole, a consulting business that transforms corporations through engaging employee training. Find more of her Lessons on Leadership columns here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.
Professor Shahram Sean Yousefi is the associate dean of corporate relations at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, along with being the co-founder and CEO of Mesh AI, a healthcare software venture. Shahram also served as editor-in-chief of the IEEE Canadian Journal of Electrical and Computer Engineering.