Graduating in a pandemic
How can this year’s graduates boost their employment prospects
It is worth availing of college-based career services, particularly as they have the expertise and contacts that can be crucial in the hunt for employment.
The transition from college to the world of work can be a challenge at the best of times. Finding and availing of the right opportunities, adjusting to the norms of a new working environment and identifying suitable mentors are all important concerns for graduates as they start out in their working lives.
While a lot of political and media focus in Ireland has understandably been on the 2020 Leaving Cert class in recent months, the coronavirus pandemic has also had a powerful impact on the lives third-level students.
Many lost income as jobs were lost on campus and in sectors that traditionally employed students. They had to navigate abrupt campus closures and the subsequent shift to online and remote learning - all while they were preparing to sit summer and final exams.
World of work
But now that they have completed their student days, how can this year’s graduates boost their employment prospects in an economy that is still at the mercy of a global virus?
“Regardless of what year you are graduating from a university, you always have to find your own angle, your own unique story to tell,” she says.
Dr Freeney, who has a background in Organisational Psychology, believes the experience gained by students as they adapted to new ways of studying and learning during the pandemic could set them apart as they embark on that next phase in their lives.
“Students can say so much about how they were resilient and agile in how they met these new demands, particularly as they were approaching their finals which was a significant milestone in their lives,” she said.
Constant change is the so-called “new normal” for many companies and in order to manage change they will need employees that are adaptable, have an ability to collaborate, communicate and solve problems.
Employers, Dr Freeney says, can be relatively agnostic about the actual qualification that students graduate with. “They are much more interested in the transversal skills that students gain through their studies.”
This, she says, is something that has been emphasised in recent months. “Their digital fluency will have gone through the roof. They will have learned in virtual rooms, they will have learned in isolation from the normal support networks that they would have around them when they are on campus.”
The changing nature of the workplace means that far greater emphasis is now being placed on the cultivation of a workforce with a significant soft skills capability.
And many of this year’s graduates are now equipped with skills and tools that could take longer to build up in normal times.
“This equips them so well for working in global virtual teams which are inevitable in the future regardless of what they enter into. We work in a global village now and we have to be able to adapt to work with people. Students will have dealt with that. They will have to have negotiated that and found ways to work together as a team.”
Graduates see what works well and are able to bring their experiences with them. “They are not fearful of working in virtual remote working spaces.”
“I think that is something that really stands to them among a lot of other skills that they have honed in recent months that perhaps graduates from other years would not have done, certainly not to anything like the same extent to which these graduates have done.”
Dr Freeney believes graduates should also be open to looking beyond the discipline they focused on while they were in college.
“Graduates coming out of college may have just come through four years in one particular discipline and maybe they are completely focused on getting a role in that area but there may be fantastic opportunities for them in something quite different.
“It might not be permanent but if they go into it with the right attitude and an open mind they are likely to learn something that they can bring with them anywhere,” she says.
But what does the jobs market look like in the middle of a pandemic? Ireland has been at a standstill for just over six months with many parts of the economy and society still suffering as restrictions continue to paralyse traditional business and social activity.
“The Covid-19 crisis has continued to have a significant impact on the labour market in Ireland in recent months with many employers finding it difficult to plan for the future,” says Orla Bannon, Director of Careers at Trinity College Dublin.
“However, graduate recruitment is proving somewhat resilient with many employers continuing to run their graduate programmes, although the number of places available will likely be lower in 2021. In terms of general graduate recruitment, while the market has slowed, opportunities are still being advertised,” she says.
The impact of the virus has not been evenly spread across the economy, says Bannon. “There are continuing demands in healthcare, education, pharma, med-tech, ICT and financial services as evidenced by the recent DEBI Focus on Sectors 2020 reports.
“However, the aviation, retail, hospitality and tourism sectors have been severely affected including a significant loss of part-time employment across these sectors, which have impacted on students and graduates.”
Focus on strengths
How then can graduates make a positive start to the job hunt? The first step is to write a CV.
“We can be quite clinical in how we put a CV together but everyone has their own voice and their own experience and they need to think more holistically about what they learned from their degree,” says Dr Freeney.
“It’s not just that I got my 2.1 in Engineering, it’s not just about that. Think about it at a much deeper, more forensic level in terms of the experiences that we have had, the life-wide learning that we had through during our time in University and really explicitly articulate the types of skills that we gained.
While preparing a CV, graduates should ask themselves how they learned to be more agile while at college, how they demonstrated adaptability, how they acquired digital skills, how they demonstrated critical thinking and how they see it applying to the future.
What then should graduates look out for?
One mistake that graduates sometimes make is they think they have to master every skill that’s listed on the World Economic Forum list of skills.
“Not every graduate has every skill,” says Dr Freeney.
“We have to recognise that we are all different, that we have different strengths and we need to focus on that because that makes us stand out more than just saying “I can do that”.
“It’s about a good reflection on ‘what am I really good at and how do I tell my own story about that’. I think that in terms of the CV and how they present themselves in an interview that this is really critical.
Take the first job?
Many employers are using this time to reimagine their talent management, says Trinity’s Orla Bannon. And that means new opportunities may well arise.
“With the widespread move to remote working, this has opened up new employment opportunities with employers in different regions and overseas”, she says.
But should graduates take the first position offered or should they be selective?
“Graduates often have to take a couple of steps before they get the job they really want. If you can see that the job you’ve been offered will help you build your experience and get you closer to the job you want, then it may be worth accepting it,” she says.
“However, if you think it’s worth holding out for the perfect job, then hold out. This is a decision only you can make but recognise that you will have multiple jobs over your career and this may a useful first step to build on.”
Graduates should have a list of requirements that any job offer ought to meet. They should identify which requirements are essential and which can be compromised upon. They should also be willing to learn.
“If it doesn’t work out other jobs will come along but learn from the experience and use it to inform your next career steps,” says Bannon.
“No-one is gifted their dream job - we all have issues with our jobs,” says Dr Freeney.
“We can craft our jobs into much more positive experiences so be pro-active and look at it as a learning opportunity.”
“I think the person who hops around jobs all the time doesn’t show much staying power but I think in the current context when roles arise it is much better to be in something that you can craft to fit and look for learning opportunities and build again your own story that way,” she says.
“The way our universities are designed we become very fixed in the particular discipline we are in but we know that most of the economy relies on interdisciplinarity. There’s no problem in the world at the moment that you can resolve using just one discipline
But with many employers moving their processes online how can graduates fit into a company structure or culture - particularly if they are working remotely?
“They don’t have the same visibility when they are starting off that graduates had in previous years,” says Dr Freeney.
“So they just have to be a little bit more proactive and not to inundate requests for feedback but certainly to ask constructive questions about what they have done and try to make themselves just a little bit more visible to their line managers.
But working remotely in a pandemic does pose some challenges.
“There is a balance. Working in isolation for extended periods of time cuts us off from some of the important engagement drivers that you find in work,” she says.
“We do need to be connected to other people and there is only so much we can do that through Zoom or whatever platform they are using.”
Graduates are also at a formative stage at their own careers. “Being left to their own devices when they don’t have full confidence or when they haven’t mastered whatever their role is going to be. That can be particularly challenging for them.”
“But they have more than dipped their toe in the water in terms of learning and communicating so I think they are well placed to rise to that challenge but I think they do need some scaffolding and support from the organisation to make sure that it works.”
And while asking for feedback can sometimes help graduates overcome these challenges, it can have its limitations.
While there is evidence that people in their 20s in particular are particularly taken with seeking feedback, Dr Freeney says graduates should be realistic about the degree of feedback they are likely to receive.
“I would say to graduates that they have to be realistic about how much time someone has to give them feedback. But they also have to be proactive. You can’t just sit back and expect someone to tell you something.
“Sometimes you just have to ask the question and I think that’s important particularly for graduates who might end up working remotely to a large extent.”
They have to be a little bit more proactive - ask constructive questions about what they have done and try to make themselves a little bit more visible to line managers.
The increasing importance of technology when it comes to completing core work-related functions means that reverse mentoring has become more common.
This is when a junior staff member exchanges skills, knowledge and understanding with a more senior staff member - an opportunity not to be passed up, believes Dr Freeney.
“More seasoned members of the organisation may not be as comfortable with some of the ways we are working.”
“They wouldn’t have the same levels of digital fluency. And you can see partnerships building in terms of what younger workers can do for older workers and what older workers can do for younger workers.”
Companies will look to a candidate’s ability to lead, to problem-solve, to innovate, to build relationships but also their capacity to adapt rapidly and communicate effectively.
Considering the level of disruption industries are now experiencing, students who have navigated through significant change themselves should be well positioned to avail of opportunities when they arise.
“How we respond to change is a skill,” says Dr Freeney. “Building resilience, managing our stress around that, and also being open to learning and acknowledging that we don’t always respond in the right way; or we don’t always get it perfectly right, that’s absolutely fine and that’s really critical in terms of working in any organisation where organisational change is relentless,” says Dr Freeney.
“This is what employees experience now: this constant cycle of change.
“Learning how to respond to it and being open to it takes reflection and learning - in terms of knowing what we are good at, and knowing what we need to seek guidance on,” says Dr Freeney.
It is also worth availing of college-based career services, particularly as they have the expertise and contacts that can be crucial in the hunt for employment.
“I’d advise students and graduates to link with their University Careers Service to get up-to-date information on the labour market and graduate opportunities available,” says Bannon.
“Careers Services are also constantly exploring new ways to link students and graduates with employers online with many virtual events taking place in the coming months,” she adds.
Maintain your peer support network.
Peer groups can be a powerful resource for graduates, particularly during the pandemic when people are more likely to spend more time in isolation. As students leave college they also leave behind the support structures seen in university but maintaining a peer support network means you can share experiences and offer support and encouragement to each other.
“There is a huge transition between third-level and your first job,” says Dr Yseult Freeney.
“Students have support structures in college but they also have friendships. These are very important and will sustain them as they go through the job hunt and the recruitment experience. It is important that they share their experiences with each other. We know the value of having a learning community while in college but that doesn’t go away once they graduate. Keep connected!”