Where the crisis leaves young graduates and early-career applicants

Millennials and Gen-Zers are anxious to take their next professional step. Don’t let them slip through the cracks.

Where the crisis leaves young graduates and early-career applicants
[Photo: Jonathan Daniels/Unsplash]

Each day we wake up, the environment can feel completely new. Our work lives are upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many young people are fresh out of college, wondering where the widespread economic strain leaves their job search.


Now consider your newest employees—especially your early-career talent, typically defined as those employees with less than five years of experience. They are Gen-Zers and younger millennials who are knowledge-seeking individuals eager to gain work experience. However, during COVID-19, even your highest performing early-career talent will experience times when they are distracted. Why is this?

In general, everyone is spending more time online. In fact, millennials are the largest consumers of COVD-19 news stories, according to a recent Global Web Index report. Further, young adults are likely seeking advice about life changes, many of which they are unprepared to make.

In a recent class exercise I conducted at Rutgers University, I asked young adults to describe their feelings related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In total, there were more than 200 responses. The biggest concerns boiled down to the following.

Disappointment. The biggest letdown mentioned was the lack of face-to-face interactions. This response is noteworthy since many people believe younger employees prefer to text when communicating. Maybe that preference is still valid for some individuals. However, during a crisis, our and young people’s need to connect in-person becomes more salient.

Fear. A theme that stood out was the catch-all phrase, “I’m scared.” Young people expressed concerns about their financial stability and protecting members of vulnerable populations. In particular, they felt concern for our homeless community, which made an impression on me considering a rush of news stories of uncaring millennials; just a few week ago, young adults were inaccurately portrayed as flippant about the pandemic and out enjoying beaches.

In terms of future hiring prospects and ability to make money, early-career talent is adjusting to financial uncertainties and mounting bills like everyone else. The difference is younger people often have less income. Many are worried about opportunities in the gig economy, which represents a main source of income.


Changes to the environment. They expressed frustration with finding distraction-free work zones, especially since many are now working remotely. The group also touched upon what applying for jobs will look like for them. Young people are trying their best to adjust to the new recruitment landscape and figuring out where they fit in. For example, many young people are wondering if organizations will concentrate mainly on finding essential workers.

Despite these mounting worries, managers can still work to nurture younger talent. Here are five key lessons which can help position early-career talent for success.


When you are giving directions and communicating key messages, say it once, and then repeat it. Namely, managers need to strike a balance between communicating efficiently, reaching out to talk a couple of times per week, and reducing uncertainties and work-related stress. A positive to this process, striking a balance means you’ll have to spend more time learning about and talking with your employees.

Distraction-free work times

If possible, encourage early-career talent to work at times they are free from distractions. For example, if your younger workers prefer to work between the hours of 1 and 9 a.m., in order to find a quiet environment at home, encourage these more comfortable habits. You can always request a change when scheduling meetings.

Currently, many employees feel pressure to demonstrate they are taking their jobs seriously. This may translate to a mindset of “I must be online when everyone else is online,” which can lead to burnout.

Recruitment reframing

I am guessing many talent acquisition teams are extremely busy during this pandemic. As a result, early-career candidates will experience a period of radio silence.


During COVID-19, when uncertainty is at an all-time high, hiring managers need to step up. You should proactively reach out to candidates, even if you don’t have all the details of their start date. For example, send an email and express your excitement about them joining the organization. Remember, silence is not always golden.

Helpful resources

At times, the best way to support your employees’ needs will be beyond your scope. If that happens, direct your employees toward internal resources, especially those created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Prioritize self-care and encourage mental breaks during this uncommonly stressful period.

Structural change

The best way to help early-career talent add structure to their day is to give clear directions and specific due dates. As a manager, you are probably focused on longer-term goals. However, to alleviate stress, encourage your employees to focus on shorter-term tasks that are within their control.

We can all agree that the best way to position early-career talent for success is by demonstrating strong leadership during this pandemic (though it is easier said than done, as only one-third of employees trust their organization’s leadership). Managers have to work hard to overcome the mistrust, since employees view you as an extension of the top leadership.

How do you earn your employees’ trust? It begins by leading with compassion and proactively figuring out ways to reduce uncertainty at work. Most important: Build trust. Make a dedicated effort to build trust through your consistent, unwavering willingness to make your workforce feel safe. If you can create a space for early-career talent to be vulnerable, they will exceed your expectations.

Kyra Leigh Sutton, PhD, is a faculty member at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Her research interests include the development and retention of early-career employees.