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Reckoning with Post-Pandemic Changes

By Pat Brothwell - April 20, 2020

Sometimes events come along and seismically shift the way things are done. The COVID-19 pandemic is one such event.  

Even before the onset of the pandemic, it seemed like the world at large was at a tipping point, especially in the worlds of work and education we inhabit here at VirtualJobShadow.com. 

We’ve been questioning numerous standards ourselves over the past couple months, from whether college is still the answer for everyone to the role of standardized tests. This pandemic we’re weathering is really disrupting “the way things are done,” from the sheer amount of jobs lost, to the students whose semesters were unceremoniously ended, to the unprecedented number of people now learning to work remotely

This disruption is going to require a reset once things have settled down. Some of these changes could be long-lasting or permanent. Eventually we’re going to have to adapt to a new normal. Here are some of the shifts we see happening:

  • More Remote Work- While remote work has increased 159% since 2015, and 70% of global workers had been working remotely at least once a week, we’ve seen that many schools and companies were unprepared for this transition. While the return to “normalcy” will likely mean many people returning to brick and mortar offices, there will be organizations that realize the overhead expenses on brick and mortar offices aren't worth it. Colleges, universities, and schools that don’t embrace beefing up their virtual infrastructure will risk losing applicants. Companies that support the virtual learning and working sphere will establish stronger footholds. We’re probably not going to transition to an entirely online workspace anytime soon, but we’re not going to go back to how things were, as evident by this Fortune article discussing how more companies are starting to implement work future from home plans. 
  • Increased Flexibility- While it’s been tough, people are learning to work, learn, and socialize in ways they never had to before. We’ve been forced to get creative, and what it’s shown is that many ingrained institutions and habits aren’t necessary. Expect a world that’s a little more malleable, a little less stuck in its ways, and maybe a little bit more willing to try something new. Coincidentally, flexibility is one of the biggest things millennials want from future employers.

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  • A Move Away from Standardized Testing- Pennsylvania’s Mansfield University announced that it would be waiving its SAT/ACT requirement for fall 2020 admissions. “Students should not be disadvantaged by their inability to take the SAT or ACT due to testing site closures,” college President Charles Patterson said. Boston University also announced making these tests optional for the 2020 admission cycle, noting it’s temporary for only the next year. Tufts University took it a step farther, going test optional for a three-year trial period at which time they’ll, “determine whether to reinstate a testing requirement for undergraduate applicants or to indefinitely extend the test-optional policy.” This begs the question critics of testing have been lobbing their way for years: are these tests doing anything? Are they actual predictors of student success? Alternatively, are they arbitrary gatekeepers giving an unfair advantage to certain types of students
  • Stronger Focus on Soft Skills- LinkedIn’s annual 2020 Workplace Learning Report found that the top three skills employers are looking for are leadership and management, creative problem solving, and communication. It also ranked persuasion, collaboration, and adaptability high. Aside from communication, these are not skills traditionally taught in a classroom, they aren’t existing college majors, and there’s not data linking a high SAT score to strong leadership (meanwhile, a Harvard University study suggests that as much as 80% of achievements in an individual’s career are determined by soft skills). However, these skills are the ones that will allow workers to successfully navigate a crisis like the one we’re facing. For example, human resource association ATD’s blog points out that, “good leadership is needed now more than ever to keep business moving forward and emerge strongly from the current challenge.” Our education system has long been achievement based, focusing on test scores, college admissions, and hard stats. It's soft skills however, that are going navigate us through this pandemic, and savvy schools will start inserting them into their curricula if they haven’t already.  
  • A Move Away from Four-Year College as the Endgame- We've talked about this before.  Many districts still prioritize sending students to a traditional four-year university after high school. Student debt is currently somewhere around 1.6 trillion dollars, and our current economic crisis is showing that a degree isn’t guaranteed job safety. Colleges and universities are also going to have to answer how they responded to this crisis when all is said and done, and it may impact trends for the upcoming years. As this CNBC.com article states, “This year, however, a global pandemic and fears of a recession along with soaring college costs and record student loan debt will push more students and families to choose local and less-expensive public schools rather than private universities far from home.” People are going to be looking for more fiscally responsible solutions. Maybe it will be community colleges. Maybe apprenticeships. Maybe college. What we've been seeing play out, college being one of the endgames and not the only endgame, has just been fast tracked. 
  • Earlier Career Exploration- The combination of an increased soft skill focus, less emphasis on testing, and a move away from college as the only endgame, means career exploration will be thrust into the spotlight in terms of post-secondary readiness. While more and more districts are introducing career exploration at the middle-school levels, traditionally it’s lived at the high schools with only a very rudimentary focus in the earlier grades. An increased spotlight means it could move down to the middle and elementary school levels, moving towards that "every teacher is a career exploration teacher" philosophy that educators have previously seen happen with literacy.
  • Increased Workplace Literacy- Traditional career exploration has so often focused on figuring out what you want to be and the qualifications you need for different positions. It hasn't focused on the decidedly more non-glamorous, but also practical aspects of work including how to collect unemployment, how to deal with being terminated, and the difference between being “laid off” or “furloughed.” This is terminology that’s applicable from every career. Servers who start working right out of high school and executives holding MBAs both get terminated. We're seeing that it's crucial our students leave high school with a solid understanding of how the world of work functions.
  • Increased Emphasis on Financial Literacy- In a recent New York Times article entitled “’Never Thought I Would Need It’ Americans Put Pride Aside to Seek Aid” Cara Buckley writes, “the crisis is pitting two American ideals against each other — the e pluribus unum credo of solidarity and its near-religious devotion to the idea that hard work brings rewards.”  What Buckley’s hinting at here is not that hard work doesn’t pay off, but that many people didn’t have a professional or financial contingency plan in place for situations like this. In fact, this crisis is highlighting that when it comes to the intrinsically intertwined worlds of work and personal finances, there’s a real gap in knowledge and planning. It makes sense. Only 28 states dictate that schools teach financial literacy. We not only need to help the next generation of workers find what they want to do but know how to navigate the minefields and complexities that come with it. 
  • Increased Corporate Scrutiny- In a March interview, billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban said how companies respond to this pandemic is going to, “define their brand for decades.” This is the key for two big reasons. 1) We live in a world that’s more transparent than ever. In crises of yesteryear companies were able to hide perceived missteps in PR blanket statements and workers had no way to share their stories. Social media, message boards, and 24/7 news cycle now means that companies that are perceived to have endangered or not cared about their workforce will have to answer to that workforce. 2) Millennials are currently the largest generation in the US workforce. Millennials are tech savvy, skeptical of business motives, have an overarching desire to work for companies that are "proactive about making a positive impact in society," and who value the health and well-being of their employees. Topically, millennials as consumers are also more apt to spend their money at companies they believe ethical. More companies may need to start courting social responsibility. 
  • Reckoning with Equity- The rushed adaption to remote learning has ripped open the conversation around the disparity of opportunities for students. What is an equitable education? Are we truly giving every student the same opportunity to succeed? Should universal internet access be given to school age students? How is it possible in 2020 that every school in the US isn't 1:1 yet: 1 device for every student? We don’t have the answers to these questions, but these will be big conversations educators, politicians, and policymakers will have to start reckoning with. 
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