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How the Pandemic is Changing the Talent Landscape

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to create ambiguity in the marketplace, leaving millions of people unemployed, and the global economy on a roller coaster ride, most companies have thrown their 2020 hiring plans out the window.

But some organizations have seen a significant increase in demand and are hiring accordingly.

Kate Jackson, vice president of Executive Search for i4cp, sees opportunity for companies—even ones that may not be hiring en masse—to bolster their workforces with top or niche talent. With decades of experience in talent acquisition and executive search, Kate has a unique perspective on the hiring marketplace. We asked her to discuss emerging trends.

What are the trends you're seeing in talent acquisition since the pandemic struck?

There is a lot of uncertainty and disruption, which creates pockets of opportunity. Certain industries have a great deal more uncertainty, such as retail, the airlines, and oil and gas; this creates a window for companies in other industries to strategically upgrade talent.

People are more likely to consider new opportunities if they are worried about job security or the choices their leaders are making. During recessions, people historically are less likely to move. But with great brands announcing layoffs, many executives who were very passive in the job market are becoming more receptive to outreach.

We are seeing some companies be very successful at proactively pursuing these individuals.

I'm thinking about a big aerospace company, as an example, that has hired several thousand highly skilled engineers since the beginning of the pandemic. The aviation industry in large part has been struggling, of course, so what a great opportunity for a company hiring in that environment, especially one looking for niche skill sets.

The best recruiting teams work to identify top five percent talent and then build relationships with them. Oftentimes high potential employees are “heads down” in a challenging role, which makes it difficult to attract them away. But if they are becoming concerned about industry trends or the direction of their company, it is easier to engage these passive candidates as well.

Are you seeing pockets of opportunity for certain kinds of companies?

There are certain industries that have been hit particularly hard—commercial real estate, travel, the big hospital systems, oil and gas, and retail, are taking big losses. In the meantime, the industries that facilitate the exchange of goods and ideas between people without actual in-person interaction—like the platform-based delivery apps or remote working technology have done well. With restaurants mostly closed, the supermarket chains have been doing well with their “to-go” fresh foods.

The layoffs have hit younger workers hardest. In times like this, the first people that are let go are the gig workers, the contract workers, and the most junior, least experienced workers.

Later on, and we’re already seeing this of course, there's going to be restructuring and more of that middle and senior management gets thinned out. But early on, it really impacted the junior workers.

There is an opportunity for companies that are still hiring to build goodwill with Gen Z workers and the younger millennials who are less than 10 years into their careers. Those workers are already on their second, “once-in-a-career” super-challenging job market.

You've seen some movement where more established companies are seeing talent making less risky choices?

Absolutely. I've done startup search work in New York and San Francisco. And that's a lot of fun because, you know, the possibilities of winning the lottery are there. There's a risk-reward pendulum that swings back and forth where people appreciate security more during tough times, including secure but lower paying government roles.

Over time, it’s very interesting to see how that kind of goes in and out of style. I've seen it in my own career with some of my [West Point Military Academy] classmates who stayed in the military and retired as colonels. Ten years into their careers, we thought that they had not signed up for a very good deal. And now, they are in their forties and the rest of us are saying, “Those geniuses!”

So, it does sort of swing back and forth based on what's getting rewarded. Right now, I'm doing a search for a bank in San Francisco. It’s a very highly regarded bank, but doesn’t offer the swing-for-the-fences upside of a startup. We’ve gotten a great response because of the security, which is back in vogue.

What do you recommend to those companies to take further advantage?

The challenging thing is nobody has a crystal ball and can see where this is going to end. You don't want to get too far over your skis overhiring and then later having to lay people off. So, there's a real tendency right now to hunker down, avoid hiring in an effort to protect current employees, which is a great instinct.

But on the other hand, there's also great talent to be had right now. If you know what your future needs are, now is the time to at least start building relationships with the talent your company will need to grow.

And with hiring down at many companies right now, recruiters should have the bandwidth to map out the top talent. Right now is the time to engage great people who likely won't take your call in six to twelve months if you wait. And if you are hiring, there is opportunity to be the contrarian investor in talent—buying when everyone else is selling.

What would you say to the companies that are suddenly less attractive but still looking to hire or retain?

The interesting thing about this market is we're really seeing companies bending over backwards, looking out for the well-being of their employees. Some of this is probably due to the hangover from the 2008 - 2010 recession and remembering it took years to recover their employment brand in the marketplace, and with their own employees, if the sentiment was they had not been caring enough about their employees. Because of this effort to look after their employee’s well-being, our research is showing that employee engagement has been rising at many companies during the pandemic.

So now is definitely a time to be looking after your brand and communicating with your employees about caring about their health and their safety.

But it’s also important for leaders to be as transparent as possible about the headwinds that your company is facing and how the company is making decisions based on those values. A lot of sacrifices can be forgiven if people understand why the decisions are being made AND if the sacrifices feel shared. Because in a vacuum, employees will think more cynically; this is just executives protecting their pay packages, for example. Or the company is using this as an excuse to get rid of workers. It is a time to overshare information as much as possible to minimize the rumor mills.

With so many people working remotely, the need to have someone close to headquarters has changed quite a bit. What are you seeing there in respect to talent acquisition?

It's fascinating because not many companies right now are going on the record. A few of them are getting a lot of press about it, like Twitter, for example. Facebook, too. But few are saying, “this is we have decided post-pandemic.” Most companies are feeling their way. It may end up being a hybrid where they're going to be most accommodating to workers who are concerned about immune compromised loved ones or who have compelling stories about why they can't live near their headquarters.

It seems to be inevitable that employers will be more open-minded about people who are not at the headquarters going forward. But as someone who has been recruiting for 20 years, I can tell you historically that hiring managers lose a lot of enthusiasm for a candidate when they find out that that person has or will be working remotely, particularly at the executive level. I find it hard to believe that there will not still be a bias towards people in the office and at the headquarters for promotions.

What other effects do you see the pandemic having on acquisition, or employers overall?

The pandemic is accelerating trends that were already happening. It was already getting difficult to predict what your customer looks like in three years, what your competition looks like in three years. What will the political landscape is going to look like in three years? If you're in the health care industry, where is the source of income going to be? In retail, what will replace the mall in the age of Amazon? And now all of that is being accelerated.

So, hire people who are oriented towards spotting the patterns early and getting ahead of trends, because whatever you're doing, whatever you think your industry is, it will be different in the near future. The ability to be a lifelong learner and adapt is so critical. You need people who can get out ahead of things instead of letting the trend overtake you. This is going to differentiate the people and companies that just get by and those that get ahead.

Erik Samdahl
Erik is the head of marketing at i4cp, and has nearly 20 years in the market research and human capital research industry.