(Illustration by elenalabs, iStockphoto by Getty)

The COVID-19 pandemic and sharp economic recession has produced dramatic crosscurrents in the labor market. It has brought mass unemployment at rates not seen since the Great Depression, with tens of millions of Americans out of work. Yet at the same time, portions of the economy have begun to recover or experience new demand, especially the providers of essential goods and services. Some companies, in fact, are not only hiring back laid-off workers, but expanding their organizations.

To say that hiring will just go back to the way it was, however, is ill-advised. The pandemic has brought new practices and expectations in labor, from the C-suite to the factory floor, further altered by the historic new wave of civil-rights protests. Workers have new demands, and employers will have to adjust.

In the short term, “our labor market may actually look unrecognizable, even when compared to the very recent past,” said Nick Baily, co-founder and CEO of From Day One, introducing the organization’s recent webinar, “Talent Outlook 2020: Defining the New Contours of the Labor Market.” “For recruiters,” Baily continued, “aligning best techniques, from algorithmic targeting to compelling job titles, will be essential to increasing the volume of quality candidates.”

Moderated by Lydia Dishman, reporter and editor at Fast Company, the panel discussed several ways business leaders can connect with the best candidates for prospective hiring in this rapidly evolving market. Here are a few key takeaways:

A New Normal Calls for New Workers

Whatever the new normal looks like, for some time the economy will be exceptionally fluid, and some companies are operating based on shifts in demand as well as anticipating a time when the economy emerges from the crisis.

Heidi Myers, director of global talent acquisitions at the Ball Corp., North America’s largest maker of recyclable aluminum cans, said that the company is putting the finishing touches on two new manufacturing plants. One of them, in Rome, Ga., will craft aluminum cups. Why? Originally, the cups had been designed for major live events. “Where there’s outings and large sporting events and stadium events, those should be the cups that you're going to be drinking your beverages and your beer out of,” she said. But now those cups are being marketed for use in the home, where people are doing more of their beverage consumption, also creating an precedented shortage of aluminum cans.

The speakers at our From Day One webinar on hiring new talent (Image by From Day One)

As a result, Ball’s priorities have shifted, and Myers called plants like that one “absolutely crucial” to the sustainability and growth of the corporation, where she said there’s an “all hands on deck” approach to find the workers and managers to operate these plants.

Other companies developing their post-pandemic strategies, particularly in tech fields, are seeking to hire data engineers and analysts. Dharmendra Sethi, SVP of talent acquisitions and management at GlobalLogic, a digital product engineering company, said such hiring is “a very key focus” for his company right now, and in the upper levels of its corporate structure.

Adopting Flexible Recruiting Strategies and Tools

Work-from-home arrangements, which suddenly became a massive experiment in response to the pandemic, are likely to endure in some fashion even after the crisis eases. “We’re trying to meet folks where they are,” said Hilary Darnell, director of talent management and acquisitions at Comcast. This means utilizing virtual interviews, for example. Once Comcast hires a new employee, “We’re actually shipping them all of their equipment that they need to their home prior to their first day,” Darnell said. “On their first day, everything is virtual.”

Larry McAlister, VP of global talent at NetApp, a data-management company, said digital hiring platforms are now equipped with “mind-blowing technology.” Among the services NetApp uses is Eightfold, which engages A.I. technology to match candidates with companies on the hunt for them, as well as predicting how a candidate can grow within a company through development.

“We all want to keep the human touch,” added Sethi, “but technology is coming and helping us be more efficient, and actually more productive because there is no concept of I’m stuck in the traffic and I can’t find your address.”

Onboarding Efficiency is Key in Recovery

With many companies eager to get their operations back on track, some will need to onboard many more people, often carrying out the process remotely. Greater efficiency in the hiring process can only help here.

“One of the things we’ve seen done effectively in order to help with this process is a simple thing you can do at the beginning, which is set expectations for the candidates,” said Leah Daniels, SVP of strategy at Appcast, which provides programmatic job-ad distribution. Telling candidates up front how long the onboarding will take, and whether they’ll have to pass a drug test and background check, for example, will not only keep candidates engaged but also increases the chances that the candidate will successfully navigate such potential obstacles. Overall, this helps the company “keep the candidate experience on the more positive side,” Daniels said.

“It’s such a simple thing to do, but something we all sort of miss in the process,” Daniels continued. “And the really good companies I’ve seen do it right on their career site, or their first page of their application process.”

Diversity and Inclusion Must Be Prioritized

Dishman shifted focus to the ways in which companies can prioritize diversity and inclusion because “here in the U.S., we have reached an inflection point,” she said, thanks to widespread protests against racial and economic inequality. “People are holding companies’ feet to the fire and saying, ‘What are you doing in terms of diversity, inclusion and equity?’”

McAlister said the A.I. technology integrated into new digital-hiring platforms helps companies to identify diverse candidates better and faster. “You can just press a button and say, ‘I only want female candidates for this job,’” McAlister said. “So the technology is there; the bigger lift is getting managers to hire the candidates.”

Because of similarity bias, in which people are apt to welcome individuals who look like them onto their teams, the preponderance of white males in management positions means there are still stubborn challenges to the hiring of women, people of color, and other often-marginalized candidates. Diversifying interview teams is key to a resolution, the panelists agreed, but problems arise, again, when there are too few minority team members to take on that time-consuming responsibility. Sethi suggested hiring a “trusted interviewer,” a non-biased individual or team, separate from the hiring manager, who can be trained on what the company is seeking, to carry the load.

A little more open-mindedness wouldn’t hurt either.

“It’s all about the decision makers and making sure that they can look at a diverse background and take the appropriate risk of somebody that might not meet the exact mold or doesn’t have the exact experience someone else has,” Darnell said. “It’s about the diverse background, and so I just think we need to be more creative and how we're looking at talent, how these transferable skills can be really applicable, and how it’s okay if they don’t come with all these boxes checked.”

Companies can target candidate pools from out of Historically Black Colleges and post-secondary schools that empower women, panelists said. Long-term, if companies create greater upward mobility for diverse workers, eventually giving them more hiring power, that can help solve the problem as well.

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partners who sponsored this webinar: Appcast, Eightfold, and Monster.

Michael Stahl is a New York City-based freelance journalist, writer and editor. You can read more of his work at MichaelStahlWrites.com, follow him on Twitter @MichaelRStahl, and order his first book, the autobiography of Major League Baseball pitcher Bartolo Colón, at Abrams Books