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Careers services and COVID-19: 'The main issue is student wellbeing'

July 2020

Luminate asks careers professionals to reflect on how they reacted to the coronavirus crisis, the impact on students and graduates, and any lessons learned for the future

Marc Steward, careers consultant at the University of Leeds, says that the vast majority of students have been resourceful and proactive in difficult circumstances, considers whether the 'novelty' of webinars and remote appointments may soon wear off as lockdown eases, and cautions that the biggest challenges may yet be to comeā€¦

How have you and your colleagues adapted your careers service to meet the needs of your students and graduates during this period?

  • Face-to-face appointments are now done via MS Teams. Feedback has been that they are generally well-received. Issues with wi-fi reception is the biggest problem.
  • We have remained in our Student Careers Teams - i.e. career consultants, careers advisers, work placement team, volunteering, etc. However, other remote teams have been created made up of different staff in different roles to work on relevant specific projects. For example, I have been the co-leader of the Covid-19 Response Team with another careers consultant. Our job has been to create and collate resources for students in response to C-19 and careers and employability - i.e. specific faculty Sways produced by faculty employability staff, webinars delivered by in-house staff and also disseminating relevant partner webinars and reports to students and graduates. We also have a project for virtual internships, another for curriculum delivery, class of 2020, etc.
  • There are several MS Teams channels that have been set up to share information from LMI and IT support to wellbeing. All staff have access and can contribute. Regular times have been set up for staff to ask questions live of other colleagues about issues regarding these projects/channels. Online forms have also been created for general enquiries about projects and certain topics.
  • There have been more meetings and certainly more regular Faculty team meetings. This is due to the constant change in LMI and job sectors, as well as keeping staff connected and looking after their wellbeing.

The biggest challenge may yet be to come and that is creating content for teaching for September.

What have been the biggest challenges, or things you'd do differently if you could start again?

  • Wi-fi issues. When I first started working remotely, the afternoon signal was not great at home (my wife works from home, too). Most students were OK, but I have had a couple of students who have suffered, and this has affected one-to-ones and webinar delivery.
  • Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I am not sure we would have pre-empted this and so done things differently, but I would have liked more face-to-face training on certain software programs. It took a while to work out some of these (despite training from colleagues), but, for me, there is nothing like seeing it and trying it as opposed to remote training.
  • The biggest challenge may yet be to come and that is creating content for teaching for September. The job market is still volatile. Usually, we would be creating/reviewing our teaching sessions for the new academic year now. While we can certainly work on the design, the content will have to wait until we have a better idea of the trends in LMI, recruitment and selection, etc. This will not give us a great deal of time to create content before delivery.
  • Challenges will also come with delivery in the new academic year - i.e. less time talking for one-hour seminars/lectures, will we need two staff for each session delivered remotely? One to deliver and one to answer questions in chat boxes? This is a resource issue. Also, wi-fi quality with so much going on and access to the right equipment for all students.

Have any of the changes you've made been so successful that you'll maintain them long-term? Or do you expect the careers service to return to 'normal'?

This is a tricky question to answer. At the start of the lockdown, I think MS Teams one-to-one appointments were seen as something that could be continued. Attendance at webinars was generally better that on campus. This could be seen as a benefit and work that could continue. Of course, at that time, we had to stay at home and we were busy creating resource and reacting to change. Now (early July), I think the 'novelty' for some has worn off and I am sure staff would much rather be on campus or have a mix of WFH and on-campus work - i.e. maybe one day a week working from home and the rest of the time on campus. Obviously, it would have to be safe to do so!

There has been success with webinars and remote appointments, but when we get back to a situation where the campus is open, I am not sure how much students would rather see an employer talk in person or careers consultant/adviser in person for an appointment as opposed to sitting in their bedroom when they could be out and about. After all, we will have had a period of time when we had to stay at home. It might be that people will want anything but that when lockdown eases fully.

Personally, it makes sense that some staff work from home - i.e. admissions staff/certain admin staff - staff with no student-facing responsibilities. This would help with traffic pollution, save time on commuter travel, good for work-life balance, and might be needed due to childcare (depending on what schools can offer come September 2020). It could also free up space for more buildings to be used for student-facing work should the need arise due to social distancing.

What are the biggest concerns of your students at the moment?

  • Finalists and Masters/PhD students - the job market. Personally, I have had some students have their graduate roles cancelled. A couple of them have had them delayed.
  • Second-years - placements. Again, some have been cancelled, some shortened (i.e. summer placements). The study abroad students have been left disappointed, but the faculties and schools are looking to see if placements can be done later on in the course.
  • Prospective students - should they start a course where they are not on campus? How will the recruitment timetable work for them if they start a one year course in January? They will finish in January 2022 and employers, pre-pandemic, recruited from September/October and the larger ones would have completed their recruitment by January/February of the year the graduates would start these schemes.
  • International students (current) - some are struggling with their health and wellbeing as they have been on campus and unable to get back home. Also, will there be sponsored work in the UK?

I recently delivered a webinar with a colleague from Leeds Beckett about more innovative approaches to job search and employability.

How have you been supporting in particular those graduating this year - as they face a difficult jobs market, new online recruitment processes and, in some cases, cancelled or deferred job offers?

Pretty much as outlined above:

  • We have one-to-one appointments for all our students offered remotely. We have also offered weekly appointment slots for graduates from any year.
  • We have produced webinars to help our students, as well as referred them to partners (employers/recruiters) who have created and delivered webinars as well through faculty newsletters, email, Instagram posts, etc.
  • We have a Covid-19 information and resource page on the careers service website.
  • All careers consultants produced a faculty-specific Sway to outline what help is available but also general LMI to students.
  • We have our Class of 2020 resources - recorded webinars, live webinars, work with employers on specific sector information, etc.
  • We have a Virtual Internship Project Team looking at these and working with employers for either updates or to help employers who have not run these before/have no idea how to run these.

What concerns do you have about the impact on students who have had work experience or internships cancelled?

With regards to students that I have personally worked with, 95% of them have been incredibly resourceful and proactive. They understand the situation, have thought about a Plan B and acted on this. I have students who had a graduate scheme cancelled, now apply to do a Masters. I have had others who had placements cancelled secure another one. There are a few students that I am working with who are still searching. This has been incredibly hard for them. They are regularly communicating with me - really for a chat more than a careers talk sometimes - but that is to be expected and it is my job to keep them focused and consider more innovative and creative ways of searching for work (I recently delivered a webinar, one of a series we will deliver, with a colleague, Ben Robertson, from Leeds Beckett about more innovative approaches to job search and employability).

In general, colleagues have encountered the same situation. The main issue has been student wellbeing, especially those who are on campus. That is not to say that I have not seen students who are in their family home who are also anxious, but we have a lot of overseas students still on campus who have the anxiety of not being able to get home, compounded by not being able to attend classes or extra-curricular activities locally because of the virus.

Some of those students who have never engaged have started to connect with us.

Have you found that the crisis has led students who wouldn't normally engage with their careers service to do so? If so, in what ways in particular have they engaged?

I think, in general, there is a similar pattern to previous years - those students who are active during their time at university are still active with the careers service. Some of those students who have never engaged have started to connect with us. We have the Class of 2020 activities, which are aimed at those students who have not connected with the careers service over their time as a student and this has generated interest. Some students still have not connected at all. It is hard to know why. As I mentioned above, I have had a few more students book regular appointments to chat and keep a connection going, at times more for their own wellbeing as they are still on campus, than in previous years.

What's your three-word summary of the experience of being a careers professional during this crisis?

Can I have 4? Practise what you preach

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