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Graduating In A Pandemic: Advice For The Anxious Post-College Job Search

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 could not finish her dream internship at Boston's TD Garden arena.
Jonas Spencer / Courtesy of Allie Clancy
Courtesy of Allie Clancy
Allie Clancy could not finish her dream internship at Boston's TD Garden arena.

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 is about to graduate from College of the Ozarks in Missouri.
    Kressa Phillips / Courtesy of Brittany Weaver
    Courtesy of Brittany Weaver
    Brittany Weaver is about to graduate from College of the Ozarks in Missouri.

    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?

    "I sort of assumed having a trade would be a pretty safe bet," says Timothy Hasson, who's about to graduate as an aircraft mechanic.
    / Courtesy of Timothy C. Hasson
    Courtesy of Timothy C. Hasson
    "I sort of assumed having a trade would be a pretty safe bet," says Timothy Hasson, who's about to graduate as an aircraft mechanic.

    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.
  • Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Alina Selyukh
    Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.
    Elissa Nadworny
    Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
    Diane Adame