How Career Services Professionals Can Prepare Students for Uncertainty in the Age of COVID-19
As career services professionals, we frequently engage in conversations about the pace of change that takes place in the workforce and the impact that economic conditions, labor laws, and technology have on employment.
The rapid pace of change has never been more evident for most of us than it is right now during this COVID-19 crisis. COVID-19 has demonstrated that the only constant is change. We have had to rapidly abandon our office settings and mobilize online. We had to quickly establish new communication channels, work processes, and reporting procedures for our staff. Before leaving campus, all department-issued iPads were updated with a suite of communication and productivity apps, and the staff practiced hosting and attending meetings. At Iona College, our staff uses Workplace for group/team meetings, morning check-ins, end of day wrap-ups, project feedback, and to share progress and celebrate success.
Inventorying all devices and installing and practicing new apps all took place in three and a half hours one afternoon. There was zero downtime from campus to home and communication remained consistent with students and employers. Student appointments were converted to Zoom, on-campus interviews were changed to video, in-person workshops were repositioned for online delivery and the Career Expo was relaunched as a virtual recruiting event.
While Zoom permitted us to connect, serve, and support our students at a distance, we quickly encountered some ways in which the career coaching dynamic was different. Many of our students are from the New York City area and reside in smaller living quarters with family, which does not provide them with too much privacy. We once had a parent join a career coaching session which led us to craft some recommendations and tips separate from our appointment policies.
We encourage students to find a quiet corner and emphasize that career coaching sessions are intended to be (and most effective when) 1:1 with minimal distractions. All changes we made in the first week of online appointments. A positive trend we have experienced in the first several weeks of being online is a decrease in no show appointments. We attribute the trend to less physical barriers–it doesn’t matter if it is raining outside or doesn’t involve a walk across campus–and the Zoom meeting invitation received after scheduling an appointment.
"Every career decision a student makes is a step in the unknown."
We are monitoring the daily economic updates and unemployment projections and know we will be guiding students through a very different job market than what existed in February of 2020. We also know there will be long-term effects across all industries and structural changes in employment in a lot of professions. The NACE weekly employer polls in March and April show that employers are continuously modifying their hiring plans and jobless claims are climbing weekly. There is currently a lot we do not know about the future of the economy and employment.
The crisis has reminded us that there is little within our control and very few things that we know for certain. With such an unpredictable landscape, how do we help students prepare for a career? The answer: focus on the process and not the outcome. Every career decision a student makes is a step in the unknown. As career development professionals we are equipped for this moment—to coach students through uncertainty and the unknown, as we have always trained to do. We know there is no “guaranteed outcome,” which is why we are averse to the term “placement” and skeptical of 2 a.m. infomercials that emphasize a money-back guarantee. As career development professionals, we know planning is helpful but plans rarely work out as intended and need to be flexible. If executed plans always produced the desired result, then managing a career and navigating life would be easy because it “was planned that way.” Instead, unanticipated events and circumstances arise along our path and challenge us for our best.
With the rapidly changing conditions sparked by COVID-19, we need to teach our students to focus on the process and not the outcome. Encourage students to prepare themselves to take advantage of emerging opportunities by focusing on the elements that they can control–an error-free resume, devising a multi-pronged job search strategy, and enhancing their networking and interviewing skills. Mastering these fundamentals beyond a basic level will provide students with the agility required to respond to the changes they will encounter in the job market. It is important to also encourage students to craft more than one career plan (e.g. prepare plans A, B, and C) and to challenge their thinking to be more flexible and receptive to new possibilities.
We are teaching them how to prepare for the unexpected. As you work with students, promote the development of the five skills in the Planned Happenstance Theory, which support career readiness and help students create and seize opportunities.
- Curiosity and learning. Possessing an interest in learning and exploring new opportunities is critical in a turbulent and unpredictable world. The ability to learn makes someone adaptable as well as employable. If you can learn then you can learn to do a new job.
- Persistence. The ability not to get discouraged and to continue forward when a setback or challenge happens. It is not a failure if you learn from it. You benefit from the failed attempt by gaining knowledge and insight. There will be multiple job applications that do not generate an interview and interviews that will not produce a job offer. It is important to carry on and keep trying.
- Flexibility. When presented with new information, the ability to change one’s attitude, judgment, or opinion. In an environment of constant change and a stream of new information, some of our perceptions will no longer be relevant and require us to update our thinking and approach.
- Encourage optimism. Is it an obstacle or a challenge? A struggling economy with a very competitive job market is a challenge for a job seeker to bringing their very best to the job search process. It is through adversity that we grow and become better.
- Be action-oriented. We all have worked with students before who hesitated and refrained from submitting a job application, making a call, or reaching out to a potential contact to expand their network. It is through action and taking chances that opportunities are created.
The time ahead is a challenge for all of us to bring our expertise and best thinking forward to support our students. Both collectively and individually, we will help our students through this period of time like we have previously and we’ll continue our conversations on the impact of change on employment and strategies for managing uncertainty. Stay safe and be well.
Matt Cardin is the Associate Vice Provost for Career and Personal Development at Iona College. He is a leader in higher education with expertise in career and student leadership education, assessment and learning outcomes, program design, systems thinking, and management.