Coronavirus and graduate careers: what are some employers doing?

The only certainty these days is uncertainty, and for students it comes at a particularly difficult time. With exams, coursework and uncertain graduation dates ahead, the predicaments faced by students are mirrored by increasing challenges for employers, which of course has had a transformative impact on graduate recruitment.

A recent report in The Guardian said that some of the UK's largest recruiters have reluctantly cancelled or paused recruitment drives and internships in the face of the pandemic. Major employers such as Lloyd's Banking Group, PwC, BDO and HSBC are among those that have been forced to make changes to their existing plans because of the crisis. Gerwyn Davis, a senior labour market adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said that the institute was 'already seeing evidence that recruitment has fallen sharply, which is not surprising given that the government's focus is on preserving existing jobs'. The Institute of Student Employers added that more than a quarter of companies had said they were anticipating hiring fewer graduates as a result of the crisis.

How big is the disruption?

There are, of course, anecdotal reports from around the country of graduate offers being reneged upon, with and without compensation. Others have announced sudden delays to start dates for interns or graduates and it seems that summer work experience programmes have been hard hit – cancelled completely or, where possible, migrated to virtual training.

The scale and longevity of disruption to graduate recruitment remains uncertain, but many companies are using different approaches to try to mitigate the damage to their talent pipelines and brand. According to The Guardian report, major retail banks, such as Santander and Lloyd's, have cancelled their summer internship programmes, but those who were already accepted onto the programme have been fast tracked to the latter stages of the firms' 2021 graduate recruitment processes. US investment bank Goldman Sachs has deferred start dates for two rounds of internships and HSBC has announced delays to start dates for both its graduate recruits and interns. It is anticipated that Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC (known as the 'Big 4') will all modify their internship and graduate recruitment intakes, but nothing certain has been announced as yet in the UK. However, PwC has cancelled its summer internship scheme for 400 students, migrating its training online and making it available to all the students (in excess of 5,000) who originally applied for the programme.

Virtual internships are not a replacement for summer internship programmes, but the fact that organisations such as PwC and SAP are investing in online learning indicates that this may be something that will continue post-pandemic. Virtual internships also provide a level playing field for all interns and can be an aid for those who may be more self-conscious in an office environment. Under the current measures, online career events are also taking shape, providing students and graduates with the opportunity to maintain connections with companies and build their network. Find out more about them here.

The situation in Ireland

In Ireland, the Big 4 announced they would be retaining their staff, but with some flexibility for sabbaticals or extended periods of leave. The Irish Times asked the accounting giants if they would be pursuing this year's graduate intake as planned. Deloitte said it planned to proceed with its graduate recruitment programme as normal, while PwC, EY and KPMG all said they would keep the situation under review. As in the UK, these firms announced sizeable pay cuts for those at partner level.

Many employers are still concerned about exams and how final results or grades might be assigned by third level institutions. There is some concern that moving exams online, particularly in such a short amount of time, may introduce risks as both students and staff will have limited time to prepare. There are also questions over verifying the authenticity of student work and that of institutions, as reported by the Irish qualifications body QQI, which stated the need to 'reaffirm expectations for learners to behave at all times with academic integrity', and acknowledge that not all modules may be suited for online delivery and assessment.

The situation for UK universities

In the UK, a survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that students were, for the most part, content with how their institution had communicated with them so far during this crisis.

A majority (70%) of those surveyed said that they felt the messaging from their higher education institution on coronavirus gave clear direction, compared with 18% who said it had been either 'quite unclear' or 'very unclear'. The survey also showed that 49% of the students who were asked were happy with the online learning put in place by their university to replace face-to-face teaching. This was compared with 23% of students who were dissatisfied with online teaching and 29% who said that they were undecided.

The best course of action if you're unsure whether your internship is going ahead, or if your start date for a graduate programme or job is delayed, is obviously to get in contact with the organisation, but do bear in mind the pressure they are currently under. They will get back to you when they know with certainty what is occurring, and many of these organisations will put considerable effort into making sure they stay in constructive communication with students and graduates who they believe could be a real fit for their organisation.

Read our article on what you can do if your summer internship is cancelled.