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In the face of a COVID-hampered job market, Career Center reaches out to seniors, offers remote programming

Last week, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned that the global economy might be facing its worst recession since the Great Depression, reports Bloomberg. The IMF predicts that the global economy will contract by 3 percent this year—compared to a January projection of a 3.3 percent expansion. Such a downturn would far surpass the 0.1% contraction of the Great Recession. 

In late March, jobless claims reached a record high in the U.S., as an unprecedented 3 million workers filed for unemployment, reports CNBC. Earnings among this year’s graduating class might take an entire decade to catch up to those of their peers, reports MarketWatch

All things considered, the job market the Class of 2020 is graduating into may be shaping up to be the worst for new graduates since the 2008 financial crisis.

For Carleton’s Career Center, this quickly-shifting, COVID-defined world poses multiple challenges. On the one hand, they’ve had to shift all their programming online, much like Carleton’s other offices. On the other hand, the Career Center faces a unique task—tackling, and communicating about, this new employment market. 

Carls, of course, are concerned about the future. “There is a general sense of concern about the uncertainty with the summer,” said RJ Holmes-Leopold, Director of the Career Center. “We have seen students steadily increasing their interactions with us—through coaching appointments and programs—as the move to online learning has become more familiar.” 

“Our role as career educators is to think through how we can constantly evolve, and in this instance we’ve had to move quickly in a virtual environment alongside a radically shifting job market,” said Holmes-Leopold. “Our strategy during Spring term is to tackle both of those issues head on.”

“It’s still too early to tell how much of an adverse impact the COVID-19 pandemic will have on new college graduates, but we anticipate it will be substantial,” continued Holmes-Leopold. “Employers are having to re-evaluate their ability to recruit and onboard new employees, and many organizations have dramatically slowed their hiring until shelter-in-place orders have been lifted.” 

“Historically, when an economic downturn happens, recent college graduates tend to be less competitive for jobs than individuals who have more work experience, and may have to consider positions that are less than what they would have expected in a good economy. As a result, their earning potential and career-advancement prospects tend to be more challenging earlier in their careers.”  

For non-seniors with a few years to go before entering the job market, prospects might look a little better. “Carleton’s commitment to providing every Carl with the opportunity to be engaged in experiential learning, including internships, research, off-campus study, and civic engagement will be instrumental to helping new alumni be competitive applicants,” said Holmes-Leopold. 

“The more Carls take advantage of these opportunities and gain experience, the more likely new graduates will fare better in the first job marketplace. We will soon be launching new programming designed to help returning students maximize their summer, given all the uncertainty with the internship, research, and civic engagement opportunities this year.” 

“The Career Center’s strategy is about anticipating the challenges Carls will face when entering the workforce, and adapting our programs and services to help keep students slightly ahead of the curve,” continued Holmes-Leopold. 

In an effort to do just that, Career Center staff are staying informed about the state of the economy, and also tuning in to more immediate, network-based opportunities that might be available to Carls. 

“It’s hard, I think, if you listen to the news. There’s a lot of noise about what’s happening in the world,” said Rachel Leatham, Associate Director of the Career Center. “So we’re devoting a lot of time to talking to the experts, our employers, our alums, and our colleagues in career services—to really separate out the noise from what is actually happening. I’m hoping we’re providing that value-add to students, so that they don’t have to be wading through a whole lot of information that isn’t relevant.”

“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” continued Leatham. “We’ve seen an uptick in hiring from some firms—some that are more oriented toward analytics, healthcare, the virtual IT world, some service sectors. So there are some industries that are really being helped—I mean, this would be a good time to own stock in Zoom!” 

“Then there are going to be some other areas—maybe in the hospitality industry, or the art world—that will be hiring less,” Leatham continued. “But I think it’ll resume—it’s just in a ‘pause’ mode.” 

According to Leatham, Career Center coaches are encouraging students to lean into networks. “Talk to former supervisors, talk to alums, and be open to being helpful,” she said. “Reach out with an open-minded request—‘How can I be helpful at this time?’ or ‘Are there things I could be working on in anticipation of a future job?’”

As of now, the Career Center does not have comprehensive data about the number of students whose summer internships or post-grad employment offers have been rescinded. According to Leatham, the office is in the process of gathering such information, and will send out a survey to the student body in the coming weeks. 

Pairing seniors with coaches: efforts to support the Class of 2020 

According to Holmes-Leopold, the Career Center is prioritizing seniors more than they would in a typical Spring term. “We are putting a greater emphasis on connecting directly with seniors,” he said. As part of this effort, the Career Center has assigned every senior to a career coach. Over the past few weeks, career coaches have been reaching out via email to their assigned crops of seniors to introduce themselves and offer individualized support. 

Prior to coach pairing, the Career Center surveyed all seniors to gather data about their post-graduation plans. “We put the survey place for the first time this year, and it happened to coincide with COVID-19,” said Leatham. “And we’ll continue to do it going forward. We want a better sense, earlier on, about what options seniors are pursuing and where they might need help. We’re trying to personalize and scale our resources.” 

“If we know better what folks are being challenged with, we’ll be able to do workshops, or coaching, or offer resources that can help fill those gaps,” continued Leatham. 

The coach-pairing effort grew out of a pilot program the Career Center ran this year with a group of 100 first-year students. These students were each paired with a coach, and received an email in early fall similar to those seniors received this month. “It was a sort of ‘welcome to Carleton, here’s your career coach, we’re looking forward to working with you’ message,” said Leatham. “So we thought: let’s try this model for seniors.” 

“From my perspective as a coach, I’m just keeping an eye out for the seniors in my group,” said Leatham. “We’re just trying to make the Career Center more inviting, less intimidating. I think sometimes people feel like they have to have plans or ideas to come to the Career Center. But in fact, if you don’t have any ideas, and you don’t know where to begin, that’s a perfect place to be.”

Work-from-home programming: Shifting from Johnson House to homes across the world

The Career Center is also working to increase collaboration between itself and the Alumni Relations Office, according to Holmes-Leopold, to “develop appealing and accessible ways for all students to connect with alumni for advice and career support.”

The Carleton College Alumni group on LinkedIn is one of the Career Center’s focal points in this new digital-only environment. “We’re going to be leaning into LinkedIn a lot more, and creating more conversations in our Carleton Alumni group between students, young alums, and established alums,” said Leatham.

This week, the Alumni Relations Office promoted the LinkedIn group in their alumni newsletter, said Leatham. Since then, at least one hundred alumni have joined the group, which currently has 5,392 members.

“I think alums are seeking ways to help students,” said Leatham. “At the end of the day, students should feel reassured. They’re part of a really strong community that’s eager to help them weather the next steps.” 

On Tuesday, April 21, the Career Center hosted a “recession survivors” panel over Zoom. Four alumni from the Class of 2008 spoke about their experiences graduating into an unwelcoming job market. “Their insights offered a lot of practical insights into how Carls can effectively navigate the challenges they are likely to encounter as the economy shifts,” said Holmes-Leopold. 

So far, attendance at the Career Center’s virtual programs has been comparable to what the office usually sees during the in-person term, Homes-Leopold said. “As the term continues, we will continue to refine activities so that more students are able to participate and find value in what we are offering,” he added.  

The Career Center’s usual programming, including “30 Minutes” alumni conversations, panels and one-on-one coaching appointments are all still operating, exclusively online. 

The Career Center has begun recording their synchronous programming and uploading it to their website. In a regular term, the Career Center usually chooses not to film events, in order to encourage live turnout. But in the new fully-digital world, it’s a way of increasing accessibility. “We’re trying to have more things be asynchronous, so that people can watch it when they need to,” said Leatham. 

While the Career Center is practiced with virtual programming—30-minutes guests, for example, frequently participate in the program remotely, as do OCS students—the shift online has proven challenging for reasons other than tech logistics.  

“We had been really comfortable with the remote environment,” said Leatham. “So doing online coaching was not that big of a deal. The format and the mechanics weren’t really that different for us. What is different, I think, is not having the on-campus community, where we’re part of the ecosystem,” she continued. 

While the spirit of Carleton’s community can be somewhat sustained via Instagram and Zoom, its physical environment is another matter. That is, it’s likely easier for a student to forget about the Career Center when they no longer have cause to pass by its quirky-looking home in Johnson House. To challenge that lack of visibility, the Career Center is focusing on reaching out to students—rather than letting students come to them.

“Now, we have to work harder to make sure students feel that sense of support and know that we’re a resource,” said Leatham. “We’ve sent out emails to everyone on campus, essentially saying—‘we’re here, and we’re available to help.’”

“We will continue to do intentional outreach to students throughout the Spring term,” added Holmes-Leopold, “to ensure that seniors are transitioning well out of Carleton and that returning students can continue to advance their interests this summer.”

From LinkedIn to Pinterest: Remote projects among Student Career Assistants

Of the Career Center’s 16 Student Career Assistants (SCAs), 13 are working remotely this term. 

In a normal term, SCAs offer one-on-one appointments, as well as drop-in hours, to assist students with job searching, networking, résumé writing, and so on. So far, SCA appointments have been put on hold as the office adapts to their new digital environment and SCAs take on new projects. SCA appointments are slated to resume fifth week, on Monday, May 4, said SCA supervisor Toni Grant. 

Normally, all SCAs have similar responsibilities in the office. Since beginning remote work, they’ve each been working on new projects, explained SCA Ella Stack ’22. One group is investigating job search engines, another is working to create more career resources for STEM students, and another is compiling industry-timeline resources for different career fields. 

Stack is working on a few projects, including a LinkedIn video tutorial series. As part of the office’s broader push for more students and alumni to network via LinkedIn, Stack and other SCAs are filming guides for students about how—and why—to create a profile. “The hope is that students will begin to connect with alumni through LinkedIn, rather than just through the profiles that are currently on the Career Center website.”  

SCA Luis Alvarez ’22, who is working remotely from his home in Houston, plans to pursue an MD-PhD after Carleton. Since beginning remote work, Alvarez has been putting together an internal document summarizing Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs), so that future SCAs are better able to inform students about stipends, grants, and the REU search process. “I want to familiarize the other SCAs with these medical opportunities,” said Alvarez. Other SCAs are creating internal documents specific to other fields, he explained. 

“It’s important to recognize that things have changed a lot, for a lot of different people,” said Alvarez. This summer, Alvarez was slated for an internship doing oncology research at MD Anderson, the largest cancer center in the U.S. His offer has since been rescinded. 

“It’s important to address how students can move on from that,” said Alvarez. “The Career Center is trying to emphasize the whole-roundedness of different experiences students can partake in. For instance, maybe an internship is canceled, or you’re a senior, and the job listing you wanted to apply for has been removed. You can do other things, like volunteering, or doing an online course, or taking this time to work on something you’re interested in.” 

“We’re trying to emphasize what kinds of things students can do in the face of the pandemic,” said Alvarez. “How do you proceed after your Carleton education—if jobs aren’t hiring, what are you supposed to do? We want to open up that dialogue, so that students see that there are people talking about this, and that this matters,” continued Alvarez. 

“Many seniors in a normal year would not know what they’re doing after graduation,” said Calla Slayton ’20, Lead SCA. “And of course being in the middle of a pandemic heightens that uncertainty.”

Slayton has been working at the Career Center for three years, having started her sophomore year. As part of her remote work, Slayton has been working on building a Career Center Pinterest board. “We’re hoping to do different boards that would be relevant to students, about business casual attire, interviewing tips, networking—just finding different articles we think students might want to read, and putting those on Pinterest boards.” 

As Lead SCA, Slayton meets individually with the other SCAs once a term to discuss goal-setting, answer questions, and provide support. Since the shift online, she has been holding these one-on-one check-ins remotely. 

“So far, we haven’t done any goal-setting talk. With all the transition going on, I thought it would be best to check in on a more personal level,” said Slayton. “I’ve checked in with them to ask how the transition is going, and what remote projects they’re working on.” 

“A big part of the role is acting as a more involved mentor for the sophomores,” said Slayton. “For a lot of them, it’s still a relatively new job,” she said. “Especially since they’ve never had a Spring term on campus working for the office—I’ve tried to help them think about what next year looks like, and what this transition period can look like for them as they finish out sophomore year.” 

“I’ve been extremely impressed with my boss, Toni Grant, and Sarah Rechtzigel, the assistant to the director,” said Slayton. “They’ve done a really great job of moving things online. They’ve kept a lot of things about the Career Center still in motion—we still have our weekly staff meetings, and we’re going to start having staff drop-in hours on Fridays—I’ve just been really touched by how much they’ve put into this SCA community in these remote times.” 

Looking ahead—realistically and hopefully

“I think the Career Center is always encountering new challenges and operating in a rapidly changing environment to make sure Carls are prepared for life beyond college,” said Holmes-Leopold. 

“We are very fortunate to be a liberal-arts career center right now,” he continued, “because Carls possess the kinds of critical thinking, analytical reasoning, communication, and collaboration skills that will be the most effective traits to be successful and adapt to a continuously changing world.”

“Everyone is going through these times right now,” said Leatham. “This isn’t just a Carleton thing, this isn’t just a Minnesota thing, this isn’t just a nation-wide thing—this is global. So, when we’re able to normalize it, I think we can talk about jobs and the next step in a very different way.” 

For many seniors, their first post-grad years might not play out how they had expected. According to Leatham, mindset and flexibility are key. “For the first position a student gets after college—they may end up in the place they really want to be, that they’ve worked hard to get to. But the first job may be a job that isn’t what they expected, but it’s meaningful. It could be something in service to others, it could be something that’s closer to home. So, it’s about changing the expectations, and being more realistic and compassionate with ourselves. The paths are going to look different.” 

“This is hard at this very moment, because it’s not what any of us expected nor would have chosen,” said Leatham. “However, maybe there are some gifts in this—in terms of time, taking space to reflect, taking on odd jobs. Everyone’s going to have really interesting stories about how they dealt with their time in COVID-19. I think we can lean into that, and recognize that we’re all in this together, and be compassionate.” 

“It’s important to keep in perspective that this is just the beginning,” Leatham continued. “In the length of somebody’s career, which is probably going to span some 35 years, this is three months, six months. So over the long run, it’s going to work out, and it’s going to be okay.”

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