Without a roadmap: Advice for graduates starting a career amid the COVID-19 pandemic
More than 3.9 million people graduate from college this spring in the United States. Just a few weeks ago, they expected to join the workforce with their diplomas and fresh ideas. In the midst of the novel coronavirus and subsequent social distancing and stay-at-home orders, however, the path for new graduates has made an extraordinary shift. They now face a job market troubled by record unemployment and deep uncertainty.We interviewed several students graduating from Montana universities to understand their concerns and plans for the future. To help new job seekers navigate these challenging times, we asked leaders from companies still hiring, campus career services, and staffing firms to share their wisdom.
Dealing with the emotional fallout.
As a graduate myself, to say it feels like the ground has been ripped out from under me might be an understatement. I feel frozen by the dramatic decrease in options that COVID-19 brings. It fills me with fear to know I didn’t have a plan for after graduation to begin with and have to create my career path under serious restrictions. The thought that gives me courage is that I am not alone in these feelings of uncertainty.
Austin is about to graduate from the University of Montana with a degree in history. He was in the middle of negotiating three job offers at national parks across America when the stay-at-home order hit.“I'm in the middle of trying to choose which of these three sites do I really want to be at,” Austin said. “And two of them emailed me back a couple hours later and were like, ‘sorry’.”Austin said he felt crushed by the news.
New graduates across the country, like Austin, have had their post-graduation plans altered by COVID-19 and are struggling to figure out what to do next. Cheryl Minnick and Carina Beck are working to help new graduates shift their strategy. “I'm seeing a little bit of primary and secondary trauma,” Minnick said. “So we're trying to encourage students to move forward in a positive way and know that this path may take a while but it's going to pass.”Minnick may be on her computer at home, but her services as director of Experiential Learning and Career Success at the University of Montana are in high demand. Beck, director at the Allen Yarnell Center for Student Success at Montana State University, has also seen a healthy number of students reaching out to their campus resources, including resume reviews, mock interviews, career counseling and more, for guidance.
Beck said she understands how this all must feel, especially if job offers are being rescinded, but stresses that new graduates should avoid taking the situation personally. This is an adjustment for companies and applicants alike and a company having to freeze their hiring process is not a reflection of your capabilities. “You're not alone,” Beck said. “So talk to your career advisors or coaches, stay connected to employers and try to network. So many people are feeling this. Let's just work together on it."Still, it’s easy to feel isolated with such dire odds. Kimley Svendsen, CEO and founder of Drive Talent suggests building a network of friends, family and colleagues who you can reach out for support in stressful times like this. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline has a host of resources for emotional wellbeing during the COVID-19 crisis. They attest to the emotional benefit of calling people you care about on a regular basis while in isolation.
COVID-19 is changing the way we communicate with businesses. With the loss of face-to-face interactions, company leaders are encouraging potential hires to get creative. Ron Brien, founder and director of AstroHire Recruiting, said he appreciates a candidate who is resourceful when making contact. Connecting with hiring managers via personal emails and LinkedIn can be invaluable when communicating a desire to join a company.
Don’t stop talking to a company you want to work for just because they had to temporarily stop hiring. Brien advises taking initiative and setting a future date with the hiring manager to continue a conversation. Establish a time frame as to how often you will reach out to relieve stress for both you and the hiring manager.“I believe people in general are good,” Brien said. “And we're in a time right now where empathy goes a long way.”One of the worst feelings for a new job seeker is feeling like your dream company is dodging your calls.
Beck encourages patience and persistence. She advises her students to send a personal email reaffirming interest in the company, expressing understanding at the difficult situation, and asking to be considered if the opportunity presents itself.“We don't want our students to wait for a call,” Beck said, “but to really pursue opportunity. And sooner or later for some of these organizations, things will shift.”For students who are new to networking, it can be a lot like tightrope walking. You know what it is, but thinking about actually going for it is terrifying.
To now be told that virtual networking is essential at a time like this might have new graduates feeling anxious. Kristen Heck, president and owner of LC Staffing, advises starting your network by befriending a recruiter in your field. Recruiters can find opportunities you didn’t even know existed and help build relationships between you and a company you may want to pursue, Heck said.E.B. Love, a specialist in technical talent acquisition at Workiva, agrees. “Empathetic, compassionate recruiters are going to help network,” said Love. “They might not have a job for you but they'll help network and introduce you.”
Career counselors and hiring managers alike stressed the value of professional networking with others in your aspiring field through LinkedIn.Kristy Fuchs, an intern at the Montana High Tech Business Alliance set to graduate with a degree in administrative management from Missoula College in May, still holds to her plan to work for a Montana technology company post-graduation. Fuchs said her most successful communication with employers has been through LinkedIn, where her work history and qualifications are there for hiring managers to see. She set up an informational interview with one company leader through LinkedIn, and was later invited to interview by phone for an entry-level position. Establishing open communication with organizations she is interested in has helped Fuchs’ peace of mind.
For new graduates and first time job seekers, it can feel like the only moves you can make are big moves. Especially during stay-at-home orders, there is pressure to be hyper productive and it can be easy to get overwhelmed. Here is a list of manageable tasks that are the first steps to securing your first post-grad job.
Make a cool company list. Who are you interested in working for? Does anyone from Montana work there that you could talk to? Glassdoor is a great place to research salaries and others’ interview experiences. MHTBA has Montana Companies to Watch lists to fuel your search.
Make an appointment with a financial advisor. MSU and UM both offer financial advising to alumni. Members like XY Planning Network and D.A. Davidson are also offering free financial advice surrounding COVID-19.
Confirm your professional references. Do you have the right contact information for them? Do they have a copy of your resume?
Check and preorder a copy of your transcripts. Does everything look right?
Order a copy of your immunization records. You never know if you’ll need it until you need it.
Update your LinkedIn profile. Is your employment history up-to-date? Anyone you should connect with that you haven't yet?
Take an online class. Is there anything you’ve wanted to learn that you could get a certificate in? Consider sites like Youtube, LinkedIn Learning, Coursera, Udemy, SkillShare and Universal Classes. Leaders from Montana companies like ATG and Zinovo say they value certifications from Salesforce and Amazon Web Services, both of which are offering their programs for free during the pandemic.
Wherever you are in the process, remember to have grace with yourself. First and foremost, your most important job during this time is to be safe and help your community stay healthy.
Taking the interviews online.
As of March 2020, there probably isn’t a person in the United States who doesn’t know what Zoom is. Virtual meeting platforms make job interviews possible, but a virtual interview process is new territory for many. Haven, a psychology major graduating from the University of Montana, places a lot of value in on-site interviews. She said she enjoys the process of face-to-face interactions and believes she will be a weaker candidate in a virtual environment.“I get a lot out of going to the place and seeing what it is and like seeing if it's a place that I would be comfortable working,” Haven said. “Now you kind of rely on whoever's interviewing you to tell you about the company culture.”
Career advisors agree that there will be some kinks to work out, but have some recommendations to help online interviews go as smoothly as possible. “Plan ahead of time and practice,” Svenden said. “Do a dry run with someone you know.” Use practice interviews with friends to check your sound and video quality. Get comfortable in front of the screen before the first virtual interview. UM and MSU both offer mock interviews to practice for Zoom and phone interviews. Experts recommend keeping a neutral background with good lighting and the camera at eye level. Virtual interviews can quickly become too personal if the background is distracting or messy—opt for a bookshelf or well-lit, blank background.
Also, dress in full professional attire. You don’t want to have to stand up and have your interviewer see you’re wearing sweatpants!“Know what your top five or 10 interview questions usually are,” Brien said. “Write your answers out for yourself.” Although you can put notes next to your computer if it eases your mind, practice looking at the webcam rather than your screen as you speak. Online interviews don’t just change the format, they can change the sort of questions you ask your interviewer. Minnick advises expressing empathy for the company’s situation by asking about how they are dealing with COVID-19.“It could be something like, how has this affected your organization?” Minnick said. “What does the work from home mandate look like at your company?”The interview process as we know it is under revision. Companies across the country are trying to make their company function remotely. Many say some of the features of remote interviewing might carry over at the end of the crisis. It makes Montana organizations more accessible for people in other states, Love said.
No one can say for certain what will happen once the virus blows over. The graduates of 2020 will take their first steps into a changed professional world and set the path for those behind them. Our professionals agree that as much as this is new territory for the job seekers, it also is for the employers. Heck said she has already seen positive trends growing out of COVID-19. “Employers are reopening job boards and they're planning for the upcoming season,” she said.
Even though a number of businesses have had to lay off employees and freeze hiring in response to COVID-19, many others are still doing well and adding jobs. Tech companies are among the first to quickly embrace the remote reality and proceed with hiring. Workiva has more than 100 positions open, Love said. onX has also put “the pedal to the metal” in their hiring, Lead Recruiter Jessica Steele said. “We think this is going to offer us an opportunity to get some really good talent that will propel our organization.”
In times like these, people come to appreciate things they might have taken for granted. “I think we're really lucky in Montana,” Love said. “We have a lot of state land and parks and open spaces that allow us to still maintain a little tiny bite of normalcy.”The scenery, remoteness, and quality of life attract new residents to Montana every year. With the push to remote work, people can have successful careers with major corporations from their ranches. Svendsen said Montana likely stands to see an influx in employment as a result. The new graduates we interviewed, like many across the country, are holding out hope that their post graduation career can still exist. Some are embracing a spirit of resilience and community that has been part of Montana’s culture for generations. “All we can do is the best we can,” Fuchs said. “I guess everyone's kind of in the same boat.”