Despite radically different underlying causes, the COVID-19 pandemic and the social justice movement do have something in common in terms of impact: They’ve laid bare systemic vulnerabilities and catalyzed widespread change. And points of contact between the two are not alone abstract. Black Americans are statistically overrepresented in nine of the 10 lowest-wage, highest-contact jobs that are considered “essential services.” You can see that clearly in places like New York, the epicenter of the virus in the U.S., where 75 percent of front-line workers are people of color.
What will be the impact of all this for employers — at a moment when businesses are reopening and broad-based support for the movement continues to grow? Let’s start with what’s changed in the U.S. labor market, then turn to strategies to help HR leaders navigate this uncharted terrain.
SOCIAL JUSTICE MOVEMENT
The COVID-19 outbreak significantly reshaped the U.S. labor market, increasing the number of unemployed Americans by more than 14 million between the months of February and May alone. Given those numbers, it’s easy to forget the strength of the job market previous to the crisis. Highly in-demand positions pre-COVID-19 spanned industries. For example:
Accounting and finance: Around 65,000 job postings in the 12 months previous for accounts payable/receivable clerks, and 55,000 for financial analysts
- Office and administration: Around 430,000 job postings in the 12 months previous for general administrative assistants, and more than 40,000 for administrative assistants in the healthcare and social assistance sectors
- Technologies: Around 40,000 job postings in the 12 months previous for DevOps professionals, and 25,000 for security analysts
What’s changed since then? What hasn’t?
For accounting and finance professionals, the answer is “surprisingly little,” at least where demand is concerned. In part, that’s because of the CARES Act and the $376 billion in relief it unleashed for workers and (at least, ostensibly) small businesses, spawning demand for experienced accounting and finance professionals in its wake. According to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in fact, the U.S. economy actually added some 13,000-plus accounting and bookkeeping services jobs in May, which is encouraging news.
Office and administrative professionals, on the other hand, were hit hard by furloughs and layoffs in the early days of the pandemic. But there are positive signs that demand is creeping back up — although, notably, most of these jobs will be done remotely. To cite just one example, as universities and other educational institutions switch to all-virtual models, they’re discovering the need to hire program coordinators, program assistants and other skilled workers in administrative roles in order to facilitate the change.
Finally, there’s the tech sector, which looks in many ways unchanged, at least from a hiring standpoint, largely because of two factors. First, flexible working arrangements were already the norm in the industry, which streamlined the switch to fully remote work. Second, the tech sector as a whole has been remarkably steady since the onset of the crisis. Down just 2.6 percent, IT is the second-best-performing economic sector in the U.S. in 2020. This helps explain why Facebook, for example, recently announced plans to hire an additional 10,000 employees for its product and engineering teams, a move that would increase the company’s overall headcount by 22 percent.
HR Strategies and Priorities
Addressing immediate concerns about how to return to work safely is, understandably, the first priority for HR leaders right now. And with so many return-to-work models to consider, that means:
- Researching, evaluating and implementing human capital plans for returning to work
- Surveying team members to identify their level of comfort with returning to work
- Modifying office environments to comply with social distancing and sanitation requirements
- Leveraging new workforce scheduling technology to support more fluid scheduling and flexible work arrangements
With all of this going on in the background, what can HR leaders do to serve as more effective partners to the business? Two thoughts come to mind.
- Prospect pipelines: Nurturing your prospect pipeline during this season of pause should be a top priority. Look to leverage webinars and other engagement opportunities to build your employer brand and develop relationships. How companies weather the storm, and how they “walk their talk,” is something candidates will be monitoring closely.
- Diversity and inclusion (D&I): The social justice movement has put how companies operate, what kind of D&I initiatives they have in place and where they stand on issues of equality under the microscope. No matter where your company is on its D&I journey, focusing attention in this area should be top of mind right now.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a tsunami, altering the workplace in dramatic ways. Some of these changes will only be short term, but many others are likely to remain for the foreseeable future. A few such changes to note:
- Agile work arrangements will be a permanent fixture of the workplace of the future. In the eyes of candidates, such arrangements are going to be a more effective lever than perks like unlimited vacation days.
- Open floor plans, on the other hand, may fall out of favor. The same holds for anything that doesn’t serve to reduce points of contact and help minimize risks of exposure to COVID-19.
- A renewed focus on culture-building, with a clear focus on D&I, will be table stakes for organizations looking to attract and retain talent.
- Look for a host of creative new perks to emerge, replacing traditional niceties like catered lunches and free gym memberships.
Together, COVID-19 and the social justice movement have exposed deep-seated vulnerabilities, both within our health infrastructure as well as in the fabric of our society at large. Their cumulative effect has been to rapidly accelerate change and transformation. Companies that fail to recognize these trends, react strategically to them and adapt even faster are going to fall behind.