Employability in the time of COVID-19

Change is inevitable…growth is optional. – John C. Maxwell

Running a business in the 21st century has been the ultimate test of acumen and adaptability beginning with the dot-com burst at the turn of the millennium, the global financial crisis that then ensued less than a decade later, and currently the COVID-19 pandemic which has brought more economic turmoil. COVID-19 has caused extraordinary, sometimes insurmountable, pressure on organisations and their people. As entire industries shut down and organisations downsize at unprecedented rates, navigating our already competitive job market has become much more challenging. Considering this, how does one go about the arduous task of obtaining, sustaining or thriving in employment during the COVID-19 era? Well, there is no easy answer, but I gathered a few anecdotes that may illuminate the path to employability during this particular challenge and any other potential economic crisis.

Remember that numbers don’t lie

I was sitting watching the sunset as my friend told me about the various austerity measures his workplace had implemented. Eventually, I asked, “Kana, do you think that you’ll lose your job?” “No” he said without skipping a beat. “Musonda, I’m in sales. When I’m not performing at my job it is evident, numbers don’t lie. So my plan throughout this challenge is to perform exceptionally.”

Kana’s approach to employability is the best available option to most people during this period, which is, do your best to keep the job you currently have. The biggest differentiator between good and great organisations in the era of knowledge work lays in the dynamic capabilities possessed by employees. These capabilities range from academic acumen, professional networks, experience in crisis management, and tacit skills such as critical thinking. These all pool together to facilitate a business’ success. The somewhat trite proclamation, “employees are our greatest asset” will actually need to be showcased by employees building their organisation’s strength and competitiveness against the volatile backdrop of COVID-19. The survival of your workplace will ultimately depend on your ability to contribute to the bottom line. A supplementary benefit is how this can be added to your arsenal of professional experience and personal resilience, thus increasing your future employability.

Be a jack of all trades and master of some

Having completed an employee town hall meeting, I asked a member of the maintenance team how he was. Bright, reached into his pocket, handed me something and proudly said, “Look madam, I have a driver’s license.” I congratulated him and asked what inspired him to get his license, knowing that Bright had recently joined the organisation as part of the building and maintenance team. “Well, I’ve been looking at the way the economy is going with this whole COVID-19 thing and maybe the company will stop the building projects, but it still has farm tractors and needs to make deliveries to its existing customers.”

Bright picked up on the simple fact that by knowing which skills and capabilities are important to an employer and acquiring them, you can exponentially increase your employability. As organisations experience worsening conditions, taking on new skills, brushing up on old skills, maintaining a growth mindset and being flexible becomes even more important.

Take risks and forge new paths

“How in the world did you get a new job?” I asked my friend Matildah as we caught up over coffee. “Honestly, just sheer tenacity” she laughed. “I had to conduct the interviews remotely, I haven’t met a single person I’ll be working with, and I haven’t seen the place. Musonda, before I accepted the offer, they told me they have a recruitment freeze and are downsizing in certain locations. The way I see it a lot of other organisations are doing the same thing and joining an organisation at such a liminal period allows me to define my own new normal.”

COVID-19 has altered basic organisational processes such as recruitment and the tone in which organisations are making job offers. However, Matildah’s case shows that employment opportunities continue to exist despite the challenges. Thus, basic aspects of employability such as having a clear understanding of what a particular profession entails, the culture, the values and being able to align yourself with those expectations are still applicable when seeking employment.

Don’t get emotionally hijacked

Your ability to succeed in obtaining, surviving or thriving in employment will ultimately depend on your ability to regulate your emotions. Our ‘emotional brain’ tends to react to rapid change and inconsistency with ‘flight or fight’ responses. I will not bore you with the rhetoric on how the limbic system high-jacks decision making from the prefrontal cortex, but I think we can all agree that when you’re stressed your ability to deal with the unknown and think creatively is greatly compromised. Thus, be aware of your stress levels, manage them, and be kind to yourself; we are going through anomalous social and economic turbulence

Whichever stage of the employability journey you are on, it will require continual effort and courage as you delve into new and uncharted territories. Fail if you must, but the worst thing you can do is not to try.

This article was originally published in Nkwazi Magazine.