Career Planning During a Pandemic Career and Professional Development Dean John Jensen '01 and his staff are busy providing career advice for Generals navigating a tricky economic landscape.
“During this time of remote learning/work, everyone should take stock of where they are and the skills and experience they have gained that make them unique.”
~ Dean John Jensen ’01
Q: When did the Office of Career and Professional Development begin to prepare for a transition to virtual instruction?
My team and I started thinking this was a possibility after our career trips to New York at the end of February. We were there when news of COVID-19 started to ramp up and the stock market started to decline. It just felt more real than it had before, and we tried to anticipate the impact this could have on our students. After we got back, we started thinking of contingency plans if W&L were to go remote. I am glad that we did.
Q: What were the immediate challenges and how did you address them?
So much of what we do—in fact our greatest quality—is establishing meaningful and personal relationships with our students through individual career advising. As a result, the biggest and perhaps most pressing challenge was maintaining that personalized support and attention throughout the evolving situation and as students returned home after the campus closure. Each student’s situation is unique, so there is no one-size-fits-all guide to navigating this challenging time, and individual support is more important now than ever. We did this a variety of ways, including career advisors emailing students directly to let them know they are still available, using Zoom to maintain that “in-person” feel, and creatively using social media. I am grateful for my amazing team, which has worked tirelessly to talk to as many students and alumni as they can fit into a 24-hour day.
There was a practical element, as well. This is a busy time in CaPD for programs and employer recruitment. We transitioned everything we possibly could to a virtual format, and it has been a huge success. Going virtual has had the added benefit of making programs even more accessible to students; for example, a program that typically would have 50 participants was up to 100 this year in the virtual format.
As the expression goes, it takes a village. The W&L community, from alumni to my colleagues, have stepped up and offered assistance in ways we never could have imagined.
Q: What impact has COVID-19 had on the job market for graduating seniors?
It varies by industry, but clearly the pandemic has had a huge impact across the board. We have seen everything, including positions being offered as usual, a transition to remote positions, and offers being rescinded. In some industries, there are hiring freezes for entry-level positions. Even if offers are not withdrawn, training has transitioned to virtual instruction, which takes away a key component of one’s onboarding. The good news is that some organizations are still hiring, and I feel confident that if we reopen the economy soon, there will be high demand for stand-out liberal arts students who are equipped with the skills and adaptability to help companies and organizations navigate this challenging time. We are working with seniors on an individual basis to help them figure out what’s next and stay the course as much as possible.
Q: How is your office working with juniors, sophomores and first-year students?
Some of those students have been deeply impacted. It is likely that the job market will be weak over the coming years, so this is real for everyone. My team has had to help students transition from on-site internships to a reduced virtual experience, if any experience at all. For most, the conversation is around what skills and experiences you can create for yourself right now. The impact of COVID-19 on students’ summer career plans will be a commonality for all students of that age, so we talk about how they can stand out by showing what they did or learned during this time.
Q: Have you also heard from alumni who are anxious?
Yes, we have heard from alumni who have lost jobs or had applications withdrawn due to hiring freezes, and our career advisors are working to support them as well. I cannot remember a time when this has been felt by so many people across so many industries.
Q: Did the 2008 recession teach you all any lessons that have been helpful at this time?
It absolutely did. In fact, I think the 2008 recession and 9/11 has taught my team a lot. My team lived/worked through those crazy times. I graduated from W&L in 2001 and my first day on the job was Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. My job responsibilities changed dramatically that day, and I suspect our seniors and young alumni are going to have altered job descriptions for the foreseeable future. I have two colleagues that graduated amidst the 2008 recession, and they have many lessons learned, including scrambling for a job. For all of us in CaPD, it is about helping students understand the long game and staying the course, no matter how hard that may be. We were in industries deeply impacted by those two events, and those experiences have provided lessons that now impact the advice we are giving. That is a long way of answering, yes, we have personally gained insight from the past that is allowing us to help alleviate student fears now.
Q: What are your top pieces of advice for students who are anxious about the path forward, including those who are still on the hunt for a job?
Our message throughout has been the same as it normally is: Stay the course, do not settle, and continue to pursue your dream career unless that door closes with no sign that it will ever reopen. I fully recognize that this advice does not help someone who is desperate to find work, so we have more concrete things students (and alumni) can be doing.
I break down our advice in three sections:
- Strengthen skills that are critical for the areas you are interested in. W&L makes LinkedIn Learning available to students free of charge (thank you, Information Technology Services and Human Resources!). There are many other specific skill development programs through this platform that individuals can pursue depending on their interests.
- Continue to develop your story. For anyone who has stepped into my office, that is a common theme. One’s story is so important to understand who they are, why they are pursuing job X, and why they are the best candidate. During this time of remote learning/work, everyone should take stock of where they are and the skills and experience they have gained that make them unique.
- Continue to grow your network. My team has always said that networking should be more about relationship building and finding mentors. You are not asking someone to find you a job or internship; you are gaining an understanding of what they do, how they got there and what lessons they have learned throughout their career. Building strong connections is always a crucial component of career development, now more than ever. As in the past, the strength of W&L’s highly engaged alumni network shines in times like these, as we have already seen alumni seeking ways to help students.
We also have recommended that seniors get a start on their thesis and/or capstone. If a student was not planning to do either of those things, maybe this is a good time to re-think that!
Q: What resources do you have for seniors after they receive their degrees?
We are absolutely available for seniors after they graduate! That is one of the things of which I am most proud. My team is available, free of charge, for all alumni, even if we never knew you as an undergrad. For current students, this is just a friendly reminder that our office does not close over summer, so we will be here for you to start planning for next year.