May 5, 2020
Who could have predicted the spring 2020 "alternate universe" that we’re all currently experiencing? In my work as a career consultant at Carnegie Mellon University’s Career and Professional Development Center, I have seen long-established student programming and services suddenly curtailed or modified and replaced with new and unfamiliar ones—and all within six weeks or so. It’s been a challenge for me in many ways to adapt, and I suspect that’s also true for quite a few of my fellow career services professionals.
The adjustment difficulties that many of us are having in the midst of the pandemic are also being experienced by students currently seeking internships or full-time employment. Recently I have been meeting with students who, prior to the lockdown, had been conducting robust and productive searches but lately had been reporting "stalled" or haphazard efforts and feelings of uncertainty about how to proceed. For students who were just beginning their search campaigns, these feelings are of course even more pronounced.
One of the primary reasons for this inaction and uncertainty relates to lack of knowledge—as employers navigate through a continually changing situation and information might not be available, students might feel that the best approach is to sit and wait it out. In reality, there are a number of proactive steps that students can take to stay productive and to take back a sense of control over the search process. Here’s a few practices that I have found helpful to use in appointments:
(1) Always give students the opportunity and time to talk about their current situations. A simple opening question at the start of your virtual meeting such as ‘How are you and your family doing?’ is absolutely essential in these times. It provides students an opening for discussing their feeling and concerns—related to their job searches or not—and can be the just what’s needed to establish trust and more open communications. Of course, if you hear some clear signs from a student that they might be experiencing some emotional and mental health issues, ask more questions, suggest other relevant campus resources and follow up as appropriate.
(2) Reassure students that their situation is not unique. Many students compare their current inability to land a job or internship to those of their more successful peers, and might even become convinced that they are the only poor soul among their classmates without an internship or full-time job offer. In these cases, providing some reality checks is usually the best way to allay students’ fears.
For example, I’ve often pointed out to students that several of my other appointments that week have focused or will focus on much the same topics as theirs. Remind them that the pandemic has affected just about everything, and that many candidates are struggling. This is not to suggest taking a dismissive attitude towards their worries—all of our students are individuals with unique circumstances—the point is that they are not alone, and that their struggles are not a reflection of any personal failings.
(3) Acknowledge what you don’t know. As career services professionals, we always want to provide our clients with a positive, strengths-based perspective, but in times such as these it is equally important to include the unknowns in our conversations. Like all of us, students are hungry for any information about projections for the future, especially related to recruiting and hiring activity. Since none of us have a crystal ball, we need to be transparent about our lack of knowledge.
As the pandemic unfolds, company recruiting plans are being periodically tweaked and adapted to fit the current situation, making it impossible for anyone to accurately predict any specific future hiring trends. Being comfortable with ambiguity is not an easy trait to practice, but a necessary one for both you and your clients these days. We won’t have all of the answers, but students will understand that.
(4) Emphasize what can be done now. Regardless of the shape of the job market, there are certain truisms that remain constant. Networking is a prime example—it is a powerful addition to any job-search strategy no matter what is happening in the economy. Introduce students to LinkedIn if they’re not familiar, or suggest that they re-connect with existing contacts. And make sure that they are tapping into their personal networks—family, friends, classmates, etc. Using a variety of sources for potential leads is another strategy that’s universally effective. Ask your students to name the posting sites that they are currently using, and then suggest others that aren’t being used.
(5) Encourage self-reflection and strengths awareness. Although it’s a critical part of the job-search process, many students don’t take the time to identify what they’re good at doing and how they’d like to use those strengths in their careers. For those students who haven’t yet taken these steps, now might be an ideal time to do so. Suggest including some online assessment tools (e.g., MBTI, CliftonStrengths) in their search activities—some are free, others might be offered to students by your institutions. Students can then use this new information as a filter when looking at employment possibilities. The information can also serve as a guide for a possible reworking of resumes and cover letters in order to better reflect individual strengths and interests.
(6) Provide structure to virtual searches. A big part of why many students feel so lost in the search process these days is the absence of schedule and routine. While colleges and employers are providing webinars and other events on specific days and times, much of the virtual job search world can be accessed at any time. This is convenient in many respects—in other ways, it can foster the impression that time—and by extension, scheduling—is unimportant when seeking employment virtually.
In addition to encouraging students to set aside a regular time for their job searches as described previously, make it a point to schedule another appointment prior to the end of each of your meetings, and assign specific tasks to be completed in the interim. The tasks don’t have to be particularly onerous, but this homework puts responsibility on the student to assume the role of equal partner in the process.
Persistence is also vital—encouraging students to establish a regular time each day for search-related activities such as scanning online job boards or working on cover letters. The amount of time spent isn’t nearly as important as the consistency of effort.
Use your initial meeting to understand students’ immediate needs, and come up with a general outline of what goals you and they will work on accomplishing over the next several appointments—a tangible plan will work wonders in energizing and motivating students who are in a rut. Follow up with students that are no-shows for appointments, and encourage them to re-schedule. And, finally, don’t forget to celebrate each success with your students—landing an interview, connecting with an alum, completing an assessment…all of these call for positive affirmations to keep your ‘seeking’ students motivated and productive.