Searching for work right out of college is always hard. Now try doing that in the middle of a worldwide pandemic and an economic meltdown.
Many students have lost income: jobs on campus or around town. They've lost internships, which help them build resumes. Now they are entering the workforce at a time when 22 million are filing for unemployment.
We spoke to students on the verge of graduation and posed their questions and anxieties to career counselors.
'I feel like ... I have no direction'
Allie Clancy is used to being busy: up at 6:30 a.m., bed by midnight, back-to-back internships, activities, track. But because of the pandemic, the senior at Lasell University in Massachusetts had to cut short her dream internship at Boston's TD Garden arena, where she filmed footage for the jumbotron and helped in the control room. An aspiring network TV producer, Clancy has been reading up on what it was like for the classes of 2008 and 2009 during the Great Recession.
I'm "learning to accept that things are going to change and I'm just trying to be OK with it," Clancy says.
"What do I do? I feel like I was thrown into an intersection with a bunch of ways to go — and then I have no direction. I'm extremely passionate about what I do, but ... I'm trying to get used to the idea that I might not get a job in my field for a little while."
Advice from experts:
- Be flexible. "In your mind, when you major in something, you feel like this major specifically fits just that area," says Kamla Charles, coordinator of employer relations at Valencia College in Florida. But she says the skills you're learning within your major are giving you a foundation. The experiences and opportunities you take advantage of will ultimately shape your career pathway, more than what you majored in. "Be flexible in exploring other industries that are thriving right now, like technology and online platforms," she says. Think: "How can you pivot in this time and use the skills that they've learned, but just applying them in a new way?"
- Lean on your school's supports. "The current pandemic has created a lot of confusion and fear, and for students that can be really paralyzing and especially for those that are entering the job market," says Mark Peltz, dean of careers, life and service at Grinnell College in Iowa. He says students in this situation should reach out to their school's career centers on campus. "They can get connected to a career adviser, counselor who has access to all kinds of tools that they might draw from to help these students begin the process of beginning to sort out some of their thoughts, reactions and feelings and develop a game plan so they can get moving forward."
- Focus on gaining new skills. "The job search is likely going to be extended and how people choose to use that time is important. Take this time to think about what will you do instead. Use this time to maybe shore up a gap in your skill set or take an existing skill to another level," Peltz says.
- Give yourself time to adjust. "People think gap year before college. How about a gap year after college?" says Dave Evans, co-author of the book Designing Your Life. Maybe now is a time to push the long-term plan off a bit and regroup, by focusing on what's in front of you right now.
'How do I set myself apart'
Brittany Weaver had hoped to get enough work after college to save up for a master's degree in social work. The senior at College of the Ozarks in Missouri has not given up on the plan, still applying — and even interviewing — for jobs.
But then, comes the bad news: The employers are on a hiring freeze.
Weaver usually works two or three part-time jobs, but can't now. She is still interning at a local nursery crisis center, but feeling "sad and confused, and almost melancholy" about missing the graduation she'd dreamed of since freshman year — and not knowing what comes next.
"How do I set myself apart in a way that makes already struggling businesses see the value in hiring me in the middle of a pandemic?" Weaver asks. "How can I market myself in a way that makes me appealing as a candidate, so much so that people are willing to hire me now, even though they are financially struggling?"
Advice from experts:
- Make it personal. "I think it's important that students start to take a personal approach to the job search," Charles says. She says it's going to be about the connections you're making, and that includes leveraging your current network. "Do your parents know someone that might need some help right now? ... If not, maybe expanding that pool and reaching out to your faculty members? Are there any connections there that you can make to say to someone potentially, 'Hey, I know it's a difficult time right now, but these are the skills that I bring to the table.' "
- Tailor your experience. "Now is not the time to be submitting generic materials for hundreds and hundreds of opportunities," Peltz says. Instead, he says, you've got to set yourself apart and be creative in how you sell yourself to prospective employers. "Candidates need to really tailor their materials and message as to why they're a good fit and why they're interested in that particular opportunity. Employers don't want to hire somebody just looking for a job. They want to hire somebody who's looking for their job."
- Don't forget about networking. "When you ask the question, 'Have you got a job for me?' The answer is usually no. Let's ask a different question," Evans says. He says when you asking employers for their stories, you're asking for something they have. Plus, many people are stuck at home with their devices, so they're more likely to be available. "When the economy starts picking up rather than you're the one who just happened to nail the job right at the right time. You're the one that people remember and get the callback to. So what you're building now is their relationships and the connections that will turn into opportunities."
Recession-proof career fields?
Back in 2018, Timothy Hasson had taken the Law School Admission Test but was getting cold feet about his job prospects. Then he came across an article about a shortage of aircraft mechanics and decided to pursue his license at Central New Mexico Community College.
"It was sort of a funny thing," Hasson says. "Our program is ... for 18 months straight. And through this whole time we keep hearing, you know, 'Market's never been hotter. This is a fantastic time to be a newly minted aircraft mechanic.' And it was. And then, it just kind of blew up."
He had no idea his new plan would mean graduating during a worldwide pandemic, right when the world all but stops traveling by air. Hasson still has a job pending with a regional airline — at least he thinks he does. But he's one license short, and the guy who would test him has an expired authorization that cannot be renewed due to the pandemic.
"I'd start asking about some recession-proof career fields," Hasson says with a laugh. "Obviously, I sort of assumed having a trade would be a pretty safe bet. I just happened to get the one trade that got specifically hit really hard by this."
Advice from experts:
- "There probably isn't a recession-proof career field," says Michelle Terrell, who oversees internships and workforce services at Valencia College. What can you do with the skills you've already learned? Are there any opportunities for me to learn a new skill that can apply to industries that are thriving right now? "You can't live your life thinking 'I've got to have the perfect plan' because we just can't plan like that."
- There are bright spots. The current situation is going to impact industries in different ways, Peltz says. Bright spots include communications, consumer products, biotechnology, medical supplies and logistics. "There's lots of players within all of those categories that are going to continue to be hiring in the days, weeks and months ahead." Those employers are looking for characteristics like critical thinking, leadership, decision making, research skills, design skills, and information management, regardless of your field or disciplines.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Forget graduation ceremonies and parties. What about jobs? Searching for work right out of college is always hard. Now imagine doing that in the middle of a worldwide pandemic and an economic meltdown. Our reporters spoke to students who are about to graduate and posed their questions and anxieties to career counselors. NPR's Alina Selyukh and Elissa Nadworny report. Alina starts us off.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Timothy Hasson sometimes wonders if there's such a thing as a recession-proof job.
TIMOTHY HASSON: I sort of assumed having a trade would be a pretty safe bet.
SELYUKH: In 2018, he had decided to become an aircraft mechanic. He'd heard they were in huge demand, and the pay was good. He'd signed up for an 18-month program at the Central New Mexico Community College, not realizing he'd be graduating during a global pandemic, trying to get a job at an airline right when the world stops traveling.
HASSON: It was sort of a funny thing, you know? Through this whole time, we keep hearing, you know, market's never been hotter; this is a fantastic time to be in a newly minted aircraft mechanic. And then it just kind of blew up.
SELYUKH: Many students find themselves in Hasson's shoes right now - losing jobs on campus or around town, losing internships that helped them build resumes, entering the workforce at a time when 22 million are filing for unemployment. Here's Brittany Weaver, applying for jobs as a senior at College of the Ozarks in Missouri.
BRITTANY WEAVER: Over the past couple of weeks, I've had a couple different people email me back or call me back or even interview me and at the end of the interview say, well, Brittany, it's been a pleasure, but we're actually on a hiring freeze right now.
SELYUKH: That's been pretty disheartening, something that Allie Clancy can relate to. She's a senior at Lasell University in Massachusetts who's had to cut short her dream internship shooting video for the jumbotron at Boston's TD Garden Arena and helping out in the control room.
ALLIE CLANCY: I'm just trying to be OK with it. It was kind of a heartbreak and everything.
SELYUKH: She says she's read up on what it was like for the classes of 2008 and '09 during the Great Recession, but it's still weird. She's used to being busy as an athlete and an aspiring network TV producer.
CLANCY: And now I'm just trying to adjust to not having any of that. And I'm trying to get used to the idea that I might not get a job in my field for a little while.
SELYUKH: Clancy and the other students all had questions about what to do, so I turned to my colleague who's been talking to career counselors.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: That's me. I'm Elissa Nadworny, and the folks I've been talking to say the job search for new grads is likely to take a lot longer than expected.
MARK PELTZ: The competition is going to go up. I mean, that's - let's be real. There's going to be more candidates for fewer opportunities.
NADWORNY: Mark Peltz runs the career service center at Grinnell College in Iowa. He says, in a tight job market, you've really got to be creative in how you sell yourself to prospective employers. It's all about making your experience speak directly to the traits that businesses need right now.
PELTZ: Adaptability, flexibility, dealing with ambiguity, creative problem-solving, resilience - these are all attributes that are very sought after by employers.
NADWORNY: For example, if you worked retail at a hardware store helping customers find the right drill means you're a problem-solver. Another tip from Peltz - since we all seem to be finding ourselves in front of screens, now is a really good time to practice those video interview skills. Recruiting was already moving towards a virtual format before coronavirus. Set up near a window for good light. Practice demonstrating interest with eye contact over a screen.
And, Peltz says, even amid the pandemic, there are some promising industries.
PELTZ: Consumer products, biotech, medical supplies, logistics, IT - there's lots of players within all of those categories that are going to continue to be hiring in the days, weeks and months ahead.
NADWORNY: Since those fields are where the jobs are now, Peltz says, graduates, don't be tied to whatever you majored in or whatever you thought your dream job was. Most entry-level jobs just want you to have a degree, so be flexible and open to new things. And don't forget about networking. It can be especially helpful when there are fewer jobs, says Dave Evans, who co-wrote the book "Designing Your Life."
DAVE EVANS: So when you ask the question - have you got a job for me? - the answer is usually no. Let's ask a different question.
NADWORNY: What he means - grads searching for a job should learn from the people who are hiring. Even if there's not a job open, ask, what skills are important to do your job well? How did you get to where you are today? Remember; you're playing the long game. The point is that you're building relationships and making connections with a future boss or co-worker. Evans says to take advantage of the fact that most hiring folks and lots of other interesting people are stuck in their home with their devices.
EVANS: So when the economy starts picking up, you're the one that people remember and get the callback to.
NADWORNY: If you get frustrated and you want to give up, remember to celebrate the little victories - a callback, a bunch of networking chats - pacing yourself towards a big celebration for when that offer eventually comes.
Elissa Nadworny, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.