What is the problem?
Where to look for a first job and what to do if you realize you have chosen the wrong career path? These are the questions that cross the minds of Ukrainian youth daily.
"It's common to make mistakes when choosing a major or not knowing what to do next after graduating from university. I have noticed a problem in Ukrainian companies. When seeking an intern or young professional for a job requiring experience, they often face the dilemma of whom the company desires versus whom they will receive from the university," Anastasiia Sychova, founder and director of the HR-brand agency UGEN, says.
Furthermore, employers seeking to recruit young individuals may not fully comprehend how to incentivize them to join their team, where to find ambitious and motivated employees, and how to establish communication with potential candidates effectively.
"There is a multitude of opportunities available to students, including internships and job openings as companies vie for top talent. These businesses must convey to young individuals the reasons why they should choose to join their ranks," Anastasiia says.
Another obstacle is that Ukrainian youth today are different from what they were a decade ago. They have other priorities, especially when seeking their first job.
"My generation is totally different; for example, we grew up without the Internet. And it's not always easy for us to understand the younger generation. They have different motivators. They prioritize personal growth over money and look for added value from companies, like opportunities to learn and develop. They highly appreciate flexibility and remote work," Anastasiia Sychova shares.
What is the solution?
Seven years ago, Anastasiia Sychova and her colleague Maryna Dzhulai founded the HR brand agency UGEN, which is short for the Ukrainian Generation.
"As I was preparing for my second maternity leave, I realized I wanted to start my own business. I asked myself, "What do I enjoy doing?" The first thing that came to mind was working in HR. The second question is, what did I enjoy most about it? Working with young people was the most energizing aspect. Helping them find their first job and observing their growth and development in their careers – that was my personal mission, if I may express it a bit dramatically – to contribute to the development of young individuals," Anastasiia explains.
Although over the past year and a half, Anastasia has encountered numerous challenges, including being forced to move abroad, adjusting to a new place, and experiencing life as a refugee, she remained dedicated to her mission.
"We knew that this would be our way of contributing to the growth of young people and instructors, as Ukraine would require rebuilding after the war. We will educate the next generation who will lead this effort," the woman says.
How did it work before full-scale war?
Until February 24, 2022, Anastasiia's team had been working on educational initiatives for youth employment. She has been assisting significant corporations in attracting young individuals to internships and guiding them in developing their personal brand for the target audience of 18+ (specifically students who have been in university for 2-3 years and graduates no more than five years after obtaining their diploma).
"Our audience consisted of students in their second and third years, at a point where they can integrate theoretical studies with practical internships and have acquired a solid foundation of knowledge," Anastasiia says.
One of the team's initial events that they successfully altered was the career fair, which was known as Recruitment Day.
"We spoke with companies that heavily invested in these career opportunities but didn't see much return on their investment. We also talked to students about their criticisms of this structure, and they changed it! First, they started selecting young people differently. Those who applied had to fill out an application form with a section about their motivation. Why do they want to work with us? Secondly, we organized career events focused on specific areas such as IT, economics, and agriculture," Anastasiia shares.
Each event included practical presentations where company representatives shared their career journeys and advised young individuals and coffee breaks where attendees could interact with HR professionals. Some quests involved puzzles, questions, and riddles.
"Young individuals lack experience. It's unclear whether they have a grasp of the professional world that lies ahead. This could be put to the test in practical situations. Employers set up interactive challenges where they awarded prizes to top-performing teams or students and potentially offered invitations to join their projects," Anastasiia Sychova explains.
The agency not only collaborated with employers and the youth but also facilitated connections between teachers and universities through their network.
"Uni-Biz bridge" from UGEN for teachers, 2021
"We introduced our educational initiative for teachers, called "Uni-Biz bridge." We invited corporate representatives to lead training sessions. For instance, in response to the COVID outbreak, teachers were instructed to conduct virtual classes, as many educators were experiencing it for the first time. Other lessons covered topics such as creating presentations in Canva, editing short videos, and conducting interactive classes."
Therefore, an extensive system of teachers was established, facilitating the recruitment of students for their future projects.
Did they really succeed?
Since 2017, over 9,000 teachers have been trained by UGEN and have received professional development certificates. "Success is when teachers give us feedback on how they have applied their knowledge, saying, "Students have a new perspective on our lectures now. We incorporated Kahoot! And it has piqued their interest! " Anastasiia Sychova says.
The agency has over 40 partners within the business community.
"We have completed one project for some clients, while others we have been working with for a continuous 7-year period," – Anastasiia mentions.
Currently, there are over 40,000 young individuals in the agency's ranks. Anastasiia sees it as a sign of her success when students from her projects rise to different positions.
"For example, we had individuals who started with us on our projects and later returned as experts. There have been instances where students attended our conferences, and we then encountered them working as HR professionals in different companies. They would say, "We know you, we participated in your events."
What do event participants say?
Oksana Trubey is the director of the Educational and Scientific Center for Business Simulation at the State University of Trade and Economics, who holds a Ph.D. in economics and is an associate professor. She has been attending UGEN events for over five years and recently participated in "Uni-Biz Bridge," a project that fosters connections between universities and employer companies.
"Basically, a professional community started to form, allowing for a better understanding of the needs and issues faced by business representatives in education. This gathering began to take place regularly," Oksana Trubey shares.
Since then, the director and her colleagues have also participated in other agency projects, including conferences and webinars. "All the knowledge, insights, and helpful advice on using digital technologies and modern approaches to the teacher's job are incorporated into specific tasks such as teaching academic subjects, developing educational projects, and engaging in scientific and practical activities," Oksana Trubey sums up.
Viktoriia Zakharchuk, the brand manager for Coca-Cola HBC Ukraine, Armenia, and Moldova, mentioned that they have previously participated in various projects with the agency. However, their recent focus has been on the "Factory Games."
"Factory Games" is a large-scale project about production, which consists of several levels:
- webinars where companies share insights and case studies;
- the practical stage in which young people work together to solve a problem;
- and the final battle, where young participants present their solutions to employers.
"This is one of the biggest and most organized projects for students studying industrial subjects. Many organizations and colleagues from agencies focus on working with students in humanities, but those in technical fields often go unnoticed."
Viktoriia explains that this project will enable students to gain insight into the real world of employment at various enterprises.
"Through this project, our colleagues and I aim to offer students a glimpse into the inner workings of our production and showcase our values and culture. We hope to give students an understanding of what to expect in different work environments, the tasks involved, and how to complete them successfully. This project is an opportunity for us and the students to get to know each other and build a closer relationship," Viktoriia Zakharchuk says.
But, according to the expert, the most crucial aspect is the opportunity to hear the future employee, understand their needs, and fulfill their wishes.
How does it work now?
Once a full-scale war broke out, Anastasiia Sychova and her children lived under occupation in the Kyiv region. Within a few days of February 24, 2022, all means of communication in the village had ceased to function.
"It was a really tough time for me. There were many crucial tasks at hand, such as paying salaries, managing major projects, and keeping tabs on how our team was performing. In the village where I lived then, there was a tower as high as an 8-story building. Despite my fear of heights, I would climb up to the top once a day to call my colleague and quickly check in on various tasks before quickly disconnecting," Anastasiia recalls.
The woman explains that the hardest part was telling the children what was happening and, most importantly, why.
"While we were under occupation, explaining to my child that a war had started was challenging. They were unable to comprehend. We were working on a puzzle of the world map. The kids were huddled around, including the youngest, who was five and a half years old. She looked at the puzzle and asked, "Mom, why does Russia need us? It is so much bigger than we are"," Anastasiia shares.
The family was not ready for the occupation – the food supply was insufficient. Anastasiia's biggest concern was that the children would go hungry, and she would be helpless in this situation.
"When you have children, you fear for their lives," the woman says.
After three weeks of being occupied, the family could leave for Kyiv. From there, they traveled to Poland and eventually ended up in the Netherlands.
During that period, Anastasia's team shared valuable content with their audience, covering topics such as where to find psychological support and how to donate effectively. By the fall of 2022, they were again fully immersed in their projects. At that time, Anastasia and her two children had already settled in the Netherlands.
Due to COVID-19 and a full-scale war, work formats had to be revised. Now, the conferences have moved to online platforms. "These projects are longer because we cannot hold online all-day conferences. It is not feasible to expect everyone to remain seated in front of their laptops for such an extended period without losing focus. So, we have a week-long program packed with various activities. It's not just about listening but also actively participating. Additionally, there is a special section where you can test your CV with potential employers or have a mock interview with a company," Anastasiia explains.
Production specialties involve projects where students work on production cases for different companies. As an example, there was a company that supplied data on electricity usage at a factory, including specific metrics. The objective was to improve these processes to make the plant more environmentally friendly. This is how they explore the potential for future employment in different companies.
UGEN donates a portion of its profits to support Ukraine's armed forces. Some projects are solely focused on charitable work, such as an educational program for HR professionals where all donations were directed towards aiding defenders.
According to Anastasiia, her most significant achievement is the agency's resilient team, which continued their work even amidst the full-scale war. Additionally, they even brought new members into the team during this trying period.
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