In late January, I gathered my notes for BlueSky’s annual year in review/year ahead article. The 2020 angle was largely focused on the upcoming presidential election and the impact it was likely to have on the economy, business and hiring. That changed when nature reminded us that not all transformations are driven by technology. A month and a half ago, the coronavirus was still an obscure “happening somewhere else” blurb in the international news section. In the last six weeks, it’s turned into a growing global crisis that’s fueling borderline panic on the consumer front, and dire warnings from board rooms around the globe. So, let’s take a step back and tackle a quick review of 2019. After that, we’ll dust off the BlueSky crystal ball and share our thoughts on how we see 2020 shaping up.
As far as the economy goes, 2019 was a continuation of the growth experienced by big businesses in 2018. The trade wars threw a monkey wrench into the mix, resulting in financial volatility in U.S. and European markets, but for the most part, the economy maintained its upward trajectory throughout 2019. Hiring activity continued to rise in step throughout the year. In fact, 2019 was BlueSky’s most successful year to date on the search side of the business, with 20% more placements compared to 2018.
With all that hiring activity, 2019 also saw many companies putting more focus on the concept of human capital—the belief that your company’s most valuable assets are its employees. The logic is simple—while the transformative aspect of technology is amazing, it can only reach its true potential when you get the human side of the equation right. Having the right team focusing on the most critical aspects of transformation, and leveraging the best technology has to offer, is the key to converting corporate change into competitive advantages. Look for this trend to accelerate as more companies formalize aspects of their human capital programs to create accountability and drive results.
So what’s going to happen in 2020? As I mentioned earlier, things are changing rapidly, and the future is even more of a moving target than usual. The last week in February saw the stock market take a precipitous plunge as fears of COVID-19-related factory closures in China started to grab global headlines and investor attention. As the market tumbled, Goldman Sachs announced that they now expect 2020 to be a zero-profit growth year. This was in sharp contrast to their previous forecast of a 6% increase in earnings. Uncertainty and volatility are stalking the halls of corporate America, and it’s making investors skittish and reactionary. Look for this volatility to continue until the prognosis on the impact of COVID-19 becomes clearer. And if history is any indicator, those steep plunges we see on Wall Street are almost always followed by a series of meteoric gains.
Fasten your seatbelts. The potential impact of a global COVID-19 event leaves much of 2020, at least for the moment, up for pure speculation. And we haven’t even touched on the other event that will have a major global impact in 2020.
This year’s presidential election is set to be one of the most polarizing votes in our nation’s history. Regardless of whether you lean left or right, it’s clear to even the casual observer that the election will have a significant impact on the economy for the election year and the four years that follow. Looking back on historical data and facts, financial performance in election years tends to slow down. When corporate spending puts on the brakes, you can expect to see a corresponding dip in hiring. The intersection of our presidential election and the looming threat of COVID-19—and all the uncertainty it brings with it—have the potential to create a perfect storm in terms of a business slow down.
As with all things, there are two sides to every story and not everyone is running scared. German auto giant, Volkswagen, announced recently that it expects deliveries and profits to be similar to 2019. Even Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, took a more optimistic stance recently when he said that conditions in China were gradually returning to normal with some factories slowly going back into operation. Other financial analysts have expressed optimism based on the likely cut in interest rates by the Federal Reserve and other major banking institutions. So, the possibility of a favorable outcome is real as well.
If COVID-19 has done anything, it’s highlighted an over-reliance on China as both a supplier to American companies and as a consumer of American goods. On the supply side of the equation, look for companies like Apple and Microsoft to seek innovative supply chain solutions that help mitigate risks and expand their options beyond China. On the demand side, U.S. companies will invest in technology that helps them reduce costs, improve operational efficiency and scale output more effectively up and down based on anticipated demand from China. It is exactly this kind of corporate effort and investment that will continue to drive innovation in the fields of A.I., A.R., robotics, data analysis and RPA (Robotic Process Automation) throughout 2020.
No matter what twists and turns the year ahead takes, one thing remains certain—opportunity drives innovation. The wild ride we’ve been referring to as 2020 has already created massive opportunities for innovation in the pharma, biotech, manufacturing and supply chain sectors to name a few. The big winners at the end of the year will be the companies who figure out how to convert those opportunities into wins.
Best of luck to you and your team in 2020 from all of us at BlueSky!