How university careers services are supporting graduates through Covid-19

The careers services team at Royal Holloway, University of London

The Careers team at Royal Holloway, University of London

The UK is  facing extraordinary economic circumstances as a result of Covid-19. Since we entered lockdown, the number of new vacancies advertised has reduced dramatically, GDP fell by 20.4% in April 2020 and 8.7 million jobs have been furloughed through the government's coronavirus job retention scheme, nearly 50% of whom are under 35. 

It is clear that the pandemic will therefore have a huge impact on students and graduates. Nearly half the employers recently surveyed by the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) (part of a research project supported by AGCAS) anticipate hiring fewer interns and placement students as a result of the crisis, and 12% expect to hire fewer graduates. Some students and graduates have already had their offers withdrawn, or are facing the realities of job-hunting in an economic downturn.

However, the language we use to describe this situation is something we must be aware of. While we must not play down the challenges this year's graduates will face, the analogy of a graduate employment cliff or economic black hole is unhelpful. 

If 12% of graduate employers expect to hire fewer graduates then the vast majority are still hiring. Careers services and employers learned vital lessons from the previous recession, most importantly, that the graduate labour market will recover and that effective careers guidance is vital to help graduates access the tools they need to take advantage when opportunities become available to them. Careers services have recognised this and over a couple of weeks, days or even overnight, moved their entire programmes of activity online. From virtual one-to-ones to increased use of vlogs, podcasts, online chats, and live streams, careers services were able to offer their students access to guidance, support and opportunities to help them develop their employability.

The speed with which careers services adjusted allowed them to turn their attention to those groups of students who require specific, targeted support. When we asked AGCAS  members for examples of how they had responded to the lockdown, we were inundated with examples of innovative packages of employability support. From bespoke workshops designed to help students and graduates cope with uncertainty and develop their career during the crisis, to digital courses to help them build the skills needed for the online economy, and provision of start-up funds for graduate entrepreneurs and hardship funds for underprivileged students. For students furloughed during their placement year, alternative assessments were created to help them make the best of their experience by reflecting on how the world of work has changed in response to the crisis and the skills they have developed as a result.

Careers services also have a key role to play in supporting the organisations they work with, whether large or small, local or global. They have created virtual internships, and employment and volunteering programmes designed to link students/graduates in need of work experience with small and medium-sized enterprises who are concerned about the future of their business and requiring immediate support. Larger employers are more concerned about attracting students to apply for their 2021 programmes, and in response, university careers services are offering novel ways of facilitating student-employer interactions on the digital stage, such as virtual careers fairs.

It is important to recognise that although the crisis has presented significant challenges to students, graduates and the wider population, it has also been a catalyst for positive changes. 

The world of work will never be the same, with increased flexibility and less need for people to be wedded to an office. This could provide more opportunities to students and graduates who cannot, or don't want to, move to another region or large city for work. Equally, virtual careers fairs may offer a more inclusive solution to some students for whom the traditional careers fair is overpowering or inaccessible. Even when lockdown eases and the new academic year starts, things will not immediately go back to normal: we don't expect 4,000 students attending a career fair any time soon, even if social distancing measures are relaxed. This offers an opportunity to try new ideas and improve the innovations already put in place. Think of the transition back to normal as a pilot period, rather than limbo.

Careers services are now turning their attention to how the economy will affect the 2021 cohort of graduates, the impact on international students hoping to gain graduate-level post-study work, and how to support students who are unable to undertake a placement year or having to fundamentally change their expectations of a placement.

While it's difficult to predict the future, we do know that the current graduating cohort have pioneered the transition to online learning and navigated a turbulent – and potentially disappointing – end to their university experience. Perhaps then we should describe the situation not as a cliff edge, but as a new frontier – undiscovered and challenging, but something the resilient 2020 graduate will have the tools and support to brave. 

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