The waves and patterns of COVID-19 around the world have not always been in-sync, making economic, social and health comparisons challenging - here and globally. The experiences of Australians during the pandemic’s trajectory have been vastly different between states, territories, cities, towns and even suburbs. But regardless of where we live or what we do in Australia, movements and interactions have been restricted for nearly two years making it difficult to plan and map real life experiences, as opposed to digital or virtual ones.
Young people have been significantly impacted by the pandemic globally, and in Australia we are seeing that despite many positive stories of resilience, we must look into the fact that thousands of young people have finished school or started work by moving from their bedroom to their living room at best.
One young student comments: ‘I like experiencing things physically, and if I learn something through a physical action, I remember more. I can write about it more and remember it better if it’s something I’ve actually done.’
While personal sacrifices have been made by everyone regardless of their age or work situation, the learning and working environments that have been lucky to adapt have seen major shifts and pivots. It’s not only the tools we use for communication and connection that have changed, but our behaviours and the ability for young people to access new experiences - beyond the screen.
Learning Creates talked to Dave from Goldfields LLEN (an intermediary organisation that partners in programs facilitating young people’s pathways to the workforce) about COVID-19’s impact on activities that largely rely on young people being physically present in a school or work environment.
‘Employers have had to shut their doors during lockdown but many will continue to do so due to the risks and needing to have a COVID-safe plan. What is being mandated and not in schools and workplaces is being revealed. New barriers are real’.
As one young person notes, living outside of a city has its limitations: ‘In the city, you’ve got more courses and like apprenticeships, traineeships, there’s so many more different, uni courses and actual job opportunities that you didn’t know existed. Whereas back home in the country, there are limited spaces for people to be given those opportunities.’
The pros and cons of digital experiences are everywhere. Our frustrations are real, but even in areas where collaboration and innovation is the main focus of the activity, new connections are still being celebrated.
Another young person notes: ‘It’s important to give us an idea of what a workplace is like and not throw us into the workplace without a clue of what lies ahead.’
Dave described virtual models of workplaces where tours are still possible employing a ‘choose your own adventure’ premise through a digital mock-up of a building. This digital dolls house is mapped with markers that invite the student or the teacher to ask a question, meet an employee or CEO or see inside an area or activity and engage with an object or a room. Interviews, curriculum resources for teachers and employment pathway maps support different age groups - from 12-18.
‘We can unlock a pathway through these tools and bring that to life, not just for the young person but for the employer as well..’
Having young people in the room, on your zoom, or in your workplace is vital. On this topic, Jacyl Shaw, Global Innovation Director at GHD - (a global professional engineering company) comments:
‘It is an amazing time where we have 4 or even 5 generations working together and now with Covid, under a global digital roof. While people are not retiring from work as early, they are also coming in younger, particularly now that we are talking about bringing more young people of a school age into our workplaces in a way that means they are really there with a voice, to see and touch and change things. The good side to this is that young people can now see where and how we work from any city or region. They can have global experiences from home.’
While GHD have a range of programs, Jacyl’s role includes a mentoring and facilitation aspect that provides young people within and outside the company to have a better understanding of potential pathways in different areas of innovation and engineering - within the company but also for their workplace learning.
‘Before Covid, learning at work was often a multi sensory experience. Young people were surrounded by people interacting. They overhear conversations, observe body language and learn from their boss about what really happened in the meeting as they walk back to the office. Now we are realising those moments that are hard to measure and quantify are a vital part of learning on a daily basis and yet not easy to translate into a digital format. After a virtual meeting, people are in their living rooms or bedrooms, usually alone and not getting the buzz or excitement from being with a team after the presentation. We know that students at university learn so much between classes, and that is also true in work contexts with the conversations between meetings.’
Inviting young people to shadow you on a zoom call is one way that Jacyl describes keeping those connections going and using digital tools to chat in a less formal way - to replicate the water cooler moments - can help.
Essentially, digital tools are opening up new ideas that we can use to create more instances where learning is happening and can grow further in the flow of work.
As the productivity report states, another benefit is ‘Avoiding the commute reduces the ‘cost’ of working, and this is expected to induce an increase in labour supply. This may include more work opportunities for people who face barriers to labour force participation. This includes carers, parents of young children, some people with disabilities, as well as people living in remote or regional areas where there are often fewer job opportunities in close physical proximity. Working from home policies can also promote a more gender-balanced workforce.’ (Productivity Commission. (2021). Working from home. Retrieved from https://www.pc.gov.au/ research/completed/working-from-home/working-from-home.pdf)
The idea that a simple and now ubiquitous virtual meeting can open up new relationships between young people and employers is very much of its time. Many business leaders light up at the thought they can help by making a direct connection through a workplace show and tell set up - it is sometimes a first foray for a young person who has no other way in.
While digital connections can’t replace human connections, they can become a bridge between a young person on the outside and a potential employer working on the inside.
As a student doing the equivalent of year 10 via home schooling, Sulia told Learning Creates that: ‘Some home schoolers were writing articles to help parents through the pandemic with their teaching. I am used to setting my own routine. I know it's been hard for lots of people as they have shifted online. They have to learn new patterns. I have to work out how much time to spend on something and separate things in my own way. I am very self directed. My parents don’t have to tell me to do it. I am self motivated.'
As Learning Creates communities are realising, working from home or remotely can also bring about a renewed sense of the relationship between work – and life.
This article is part of a series Stories about now that was released in our Discussion Paper Shifts and Flows in Learning and Work which explored the changing relationship between employers and young people. You can access the full report here: https://www.learningcreates.org.au/findings/discussion-paper-shifts-and-flows-in-learning-and-work