How COVID-19 Has Altered Online Talent Markets

04/15/20217 min read
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Matthew M. F. Miller
Editor-in-Chief for
Matt Miller is Toptal Editor-in-Chief.
How COVID-19 Has Altered Online Talent Markets

More than 4 million Americans have exited the labor force since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The unemployment rate and total number of unemployed people remains nearly double pre-pandemic levels.

Arran Stewart, Co-founder and Chief Visionary Officer of, a job board that utilizes artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain to make hiring faster, says there are reasons for optimism. In February 2021, US employers added nearly 400,000 new jobs. The Society of Human Resource Management reported that 80% of those new positions were in bars and restaurants, one of the industries hardest hit by pandemic layoffs. The number of temporary layoffs—when workers are given a specific return-to-work date within six months of layoff—further declined as more people got back to work and fewer companies instituted new temporary layoffs.

While 2021 will continue to be an employer’s market—allowing companies to offer lower salaries and fewer benefits due to high unemployment—Stewart believes the economy will steadily recover throughout the year, creating a competitive market for top talent. We asked him about the impact of COVID-19 on job postings, what sectors are experiencing growth and decline, and how companies can refine hiring processes to turn in-demand talent into happy, productive employees.

How have job postings changed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Arran Stewart: The majority of listings on our site make remote work explicit, for obvious reasons. Descriptions either expressly state that the job is full-time work from home with flex work options, or that the job is now a fully remote position with no in-person option. I think that’s a permanent change.

Given that many companies are planning to stay remote for the foreseeable future, are job descriptions specifying future-looking work arrangements?
AS: It’s difficult at the moment to put anything like that in a job description while there’s still so much uncertainty and fear in the market from the labor force. If you modify a “remote” position with, “but in the next six months you’re likely to be coming into an office,” that may deter the best candidates from applying if they are still concerned about in-person work.

People have become accustomed to the freedom and flexibility to work from home if they can, and I think that will continue to be an expectation.

How is that shift impacting companies?
AS: Businesses have taken advantage of the reduction in overhead. Dropbox dismissed 11% of its labor force, even though the pandemic hasn’t impacted the company’s sales or growth. The 11% they downsized was support staff to its office buildings—security, canteen workers, cleaners, office managers.

Now that so many people are comfortably working from home and being just as productive, reducing service staff will become a trend—at least on the tech side, where we may see many work-from-home policies become permanent.

In addition to the support staff you just mentioned, for what roles and industries have you seen decreases in job postings?
AS: The hospitality and travel industries have been decimated. They’re just not hiring at all. had several large hospitality clients—including Delta Air Lines and InterContinental Hotel Group—and that business is gone. Anything they do with regard to hiring is internal at the moment because they’ve got a major pool of people who were furloughed or made redundant. They don’t need to turn to the wider market to hire because they have the talent they need.

For what role has there been the largest increase?
AS: We’re seeing a steady labor market recovery, which means job postings are increasing in many sectors. The biggest push is in healthcare, especially for nurses. A lot of the people that left the hospitality or travel industries may reskill to become a nurse, which is projected to be one of the most in-demand roles in the US over the next 36 months. It’s a six-figure-salary job in many cases and a career field that anyone with good people skills could educate themselves to enter.

How should companies evaluate quality applicants that don’t necessarily have a relevant job history?
AS: Companies should be looking for new hires who have transferable skills—intelligence, organization, punctuality, and a structured work-life balance—which are applicable in every sector and vital to success in any role. Companies are looking for those soft skills that often dictate success, not necessarily someone who has held the exact job title for which they are hiring. Those things are difficult to assess from a resume alone without using AI.

Do you believe the resume is still a useful screening tool?
AS: The resume is outdated, and in some respects, it’s very difficult to read. As we move forward with technology, video interviews and AI interactions will be revolutionary. These allow for sentiment analysis, using AI to detect a candidate’s emotions and opinions, and classifying them as positive, negative, or neutral. We need to start better understanding people’s attitudes and the real intent behind what they say.

Hiring managers are better served knowing the conviction behind an applicant’s words and goals rather than what they read on a black and white, two-page document that has to be rewritten every time a candidate applies for a job. AI sentiment analysis takes what’s been communicated and then draws a picture of whether or not that’s the person you want for the company and whether or not they will be a good culture fit.

Are assessments accurate predictors of a candidate being a good fit?
AS: Personality assessments like Myers-Briggs and Enneagram have been around forever. I actually think they’re more relevant today than at any other juncture. Truly understanding the cultural makeup of a business and where each person fits within that business is critical.

When employees know what the expectations are for their roles as well as the company culture, they are happier. Statistics show that happy employees are 13% more productive. Personality assessments are going to become more prominent within the recruitment mix to better ensure satisfied employees and improve retention.

The US labor force participation rate has dropped about 1% in the last year. Given the surplus of available talent, what should companies do to draw top candidates to a job posting?
AS: Look at your job as a product. If I were going to market with my electric Tesla or my six-liter, gas-guzzling Bentley, I would pick different audiences and utilize different strategies to reach my target market. It’s very much the same with the job market. Choose your channel based on your audience’s sociodemographics and where you’re going to find them.

If I were looking for an executive with more than 20 years of experience, I would probably use LinkedIn, for example. If I were looking for freelance professionals, I might go to Toptal or Upwork. If I were looking for a younger, more vibrant audience for a creative role, I might focus my efforts on a fun social media campaign.

As the workforce continues to shift toward millennials (individuals born between 1981 and 1996), should companies be open to applications beyond the traditional resume?
AS: Millennials are a constantly growing percentage of the workforce, and they have a different way of communicating and expressing themselves. They’re creative and they use technology for everything. If TikTok happens to be the best way an applicant can convey their personality, tenacity, and ability to think outside the box and drive innovation, companies should accept that. If an applicant is pigeonholed into conformity and simply does the same thing as everybody else, that doesn’t tell you much about their potential.

Innovation is the key to driving your business forward. If you don’t allow your incoming team to be creative, where will new ideas come from? There’s professionalism to content, of course, but companies should welcome the best expression of how a potential employee will make an impact and be a long-term asset to the business.

Millennials also expect hiring to happen faster. What can companies do to speed up the process?
AS: Recruitment process automation. Don’t make candidates talk to human beings to arrange an interview. They can do that through Calendly or a chatbot. Once upon a time, it was a game of phone tag trying to arrange a simple screening and subsequent interviews. That’s just too much of a time investment when candidates can easily schedule it all themselves using technology. And then, lo and behold, the moment when you do need to speak to a human being—the actual interview—there you both are.

What does elite talent expect from the hiring process in 2021?
AS: Candidates like digital experiences and they expect a digital journey. When I use Uber, the entire experience happens via their easy-to-use app—getting a ride, selecting a route, paying the driver. That’s how the hiring process should be managed.

That’s what the labor force demands now, because again, it’s predominantly millennial and soon will be Generation Z (individuals born between 1996 and 2010). Their entire lives have been centered on technology.

Matthew M. F. Miller
Editor-in-Chief for
Matt Miller is Toptal Editor-in-Chief.