Graduating from college or otherwise applying for your first professional job is stressful in any circumstance. But it feels especially daunting when the economy, the job market, and the world in general seem to be turned upside down.
As the number of people filing for unemployment reaches into the millions, college seniors and other first-time job seekers might be wondering how to break into this uncertain job market. You might be keenly aware that whatever job search methods you were using before the coronavirus pandemic hit will likely need to be revised.
But career experts say it’s critical to continue to look for work and stay connected during the economic downturn caused by COVID-19. “Don’t go into a place of fear and stagnancy,” warns Muse career coach Chelsea C. Williams, founder of College Code, a Manhattan-based talent development firm.
Here are six ways to build relationships, find work, and move forward in your career.
1. Check in on Your Job Offer
You might’ve already had a job lined up, perhaps through a previous co-op or internship or via on-campus recruiting, and are likely wondering if that offer still stands. If your college career office was involved in helping you land that offer, that should be your first stop, says Susan Weil, co-CEO of Weil and Wein, a Manhattan-based career coaching firm.
If they don’t know anything about the status of your offer, or weren’t involved, you can reach out to whoever extended the offer to you, whether that's a recruiter, the company's campus recruiting coordinator, or your future manager.
Don’t specifically ask about the status of your job offer, especially if your start date isn't another two or three months from now because a lot can change between now and then. You also don't want to appear insensitive to how current employees might be faring, particularly if the company has already laid off staff due to the coronavirus. Simply say, “I wanted to check to see if you are safe and healthy, and see how things are going.” You could also offer to help out with a project by saying, “I have more time on my hands right now and I’m happy to pitch in if you need help.”
However, Weil warns, before you reach out, check to see if there have been any news reports about the company’s financial situation to make sure that the entire staff hasn’t been furloughed or the company hasn’t filed for bankruptcy. “Recognize that whatever information you have today, the situation is fluid, and can change tomorrow,” she says.
It’s also important to recognize that if your offer is put on hold or rescinded, it has nothing to do with your work, skills, or abilities—just as the struggle to find a job in this economic environment isn’t a reflection of your talent or value. Keep an open mind and keep in touch with the hiring manager. Think about ways you might be able to propose helping out as an intern or contractor if the company is still open for business. And if you learn that this opportunity has fallen through, give yourself a minute to process and then look to the other steps on this list.
2. Be Flexible
“Many first-time job seekers have a vision of what they thought their first job would look like,” Williams says. That vision might still be valid but you might need to take some turns and twists to get to that end goal.
For instance, while you might have had your heart set on a full-time job with full benefits, it might be time to consider a six-month internship or fellowship or to look for contract work to tide you over until companies start hiring for more full-time roles again. Maybe you can’t get a full-time job at a public relations firm right now. In the meantime, you might be able to get an internship assisting the firm as it helps clients with crisis communications during the pandemic. That would be an impressive addition to your resume and could even transform into a job offer.
If you’re sending out resumes but you’re not getting many responses, consider changing your expectations, says Matthew Temple, senior director of alumni, career, and professional development at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “You might need to jump in somewhere, even if it’s not where you want to be, just to gain experience,” he says. That doesn’t mean you abandon your ultimate career goal. Instead, think about what other positions would give you the skills and experience you need to get closer to your ideal job, he says.
Maybe your dream is to work for a big tech company or a startup that focuses on travel, but the only job listings you’re finding are in healthcare or edtech. Or maybe there are some open roles at your dream company, but you lack the required experience and are competing with candidates who have more training than you. Consider applying to jobs in healthcare, edtech, or another industry that is hiring to get necessary coding experience first, Weil says. Any work experience you gain in one of these in-demand industries can make you a more appealing candidate for the type of role you have in mind if you frame your story in the right way.
Or maybe you can be more open-minded about job location. Perhaps you wanted to work in Manhattan, but you’re seeing positions that are a better fit for you in Austin or San Francisco. Or even though you’ve been wanting to move away, there are actually more opportunities closer to home. Wherever you end up right after graduation doesn’t have to be where you live forever, and a job in an unexpected location now could set you up for a role in the city you hope to settle in later.
3. Let Your Skill Set (and Demand) Be Your Guide
Instead of focusing on the job you want, Williams suggests focusing on the industries most interested in the skill set you’ve built. Think about how the skills from your college courses, past internships, summer or work-study jobs, and volunteer work can be leveraged in our current economy.
Suppose you majored in economics. Your goal might have been to get a government job working on policy, but in this current environment those jobs might be harder to come by. Instead, focus on your skill set—the ability to do data analysis and research—and think about how the industries and sectors that are currently hiring, such as healthcare, consumer goods, and edtech, could use those skills, Williams says.
Again, whatever job you get now, you can use that experience down the line to help you transition into the kind of role you originally had in mind—or you might discover another path you’re even more excited about.
4. Continue to Network
Reach out to people you already know relatively well to ask them to keep an eye out for relevant opportunities for you. Make a list of people in your network you feel comfortable approaching—such as favorite professors, internship supervisors you got along with, family members, and friends—and let them know you’re looking for a job.
Just be mindful of the current situation in your communications, Williams says. For instance, you can say, “I realize the current situation is challenging but if you do hear of anything, let me know. I have a skill set in digital communications and I’m open to contract work or volunteer work.”
You can also take a more exploratory approach that will help you be flexible and creative as you figure out your next steps. This is a good time to ask for informational interviews focused on what’s like to work at specific companies or in certain industries. Ask friends, family members, and other contacts to introduce you to people doing the type of work you hope to do in the future. Identify people at companies you’d like to work for and ask for a virtual coffee chat. College seniors should also connect with alumni, Williams says. Most alums are willing to take some time to have a conversation and then potentially make other introductions, she says.
Be more focused on staying connected and telling your story than on finding a job, Williams says. It may seem counterintuitive—and it may not yield job offers right away—but you’ll be getting on people’s radar and laying the groundwork to build and grow your career in the years to come.
5. Stand Out From the Crowd
“It’s easy to feel productive and send out 50 one-click applications on LinkedIn, but getting a job requires you to get clear on what you’re looking for and why you want it,” says Meghan Duffy, a career coach in Brooklyn, New York, who graduated from college during the last recession in 2008. If you’re asking for virtual coffee chat, write a personal and well-researched email. Don’t ask to “pick someone’s brain;” pinpoint the topics you’d like to learn about, Duffy says. Being specific about what you hope to gain from these meetings and arriving prepared with thoughtful questions will help you stand out from others reaching out for advice.
Demonstrating that you’ve done research is more important than ever right now, Temple says. Show that you’ve done your homework not only in your networking, but also in your cover letters and interviews. In other words, don’t just say you want to work at an organization because it’s a blue chip company. Show why you want to work for that particular company and that you’re already familiar with their products, challenges, and recent announcements.
Most importantly, don’t forget to emphasize throughout the hiring process what you can offer an organization or team and how you could contribute in the role you’re applying for using the skills and qualities you bring to the table. At the end of the day, companies are most interested in what you can do for them and why you’d be the very best candidate for the job. So make sure you tell them.
6. Continue to Update Your Skills
“If you’re planning to go to graduate school in the next few years, anyway, and you can afford it, or even if you need to borrow for it, going during a recession is a good time to do it,” says Patrick Mullane, executive director of Harvard Business School Online. That’s because if you enter the workforce during a recession, your earnings could be lower for your lifetime. “You’ll likely have to start with a reduced salary, so it might be better to be in school during a down economy and enter the workforce in a better market,” he says.
Even if you don’t want to invest in grad school, it’s important to keep learning and updating your skills, especially if your job search takes a bit longer. “Think about the gaps you do need to close,” Temple says. Maybe you took a course in Excel for business majors but you aren’t proficient in manipulating spreadsheets, or maybe you majored in computer science and there are additional programming languages you’ve been wanting to add to your resume. Continuing to learn and hone your skills while you search for a job demonstrates that you’re adaptable and eager to grow, he says. It will also give you more qualifications to match the job descriptions for the roles you are trying to land.
Expanding your knowledge will be especially helpful when potential employers ask how you spent your time during the COVID-19 pandemic, Weil says. You will want to show that you were productive so be ready to talk about the online class you took, the volunteer work you did, or the 10 books you read, she says.
This economic downtown is expected to be tougher than the 2008 recession, Temple says. No one knows how long the pandemic, social distancing, and the resulting financial crisis will last. So focus on what you can control—responding to job postings and reaching out to contacts as well as being mindful of your overall attitude and how you react to the situation. “There will be a lot of noes but you can’t take it personally,” Temple says. “Focus on what you can do better and how you can move forward.”