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Careers services and COVID-19: 'We have all been upskilling'

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

The early stages of the crisis were about getting activities online as quickly as possible. But there has since been an opportunity to reimagine content so that the virtual service offered to students is more than just a replica of the traditional face-to-face experience, says Claire Guy, employability and careers consultant at the University of Exeter - who also outlines some of the silver linings to come out of this difficult time for students and graduates.

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

I was really amazed at the speed at which we managed to convert our face-to-face activities to online ones. As time has progressed we have started to think more deeply about the learning experiences we provide for students and are now reimagining a lot of our content so that our virtual interventions are more than an online replica of what we did face to face. So we have all been upskilling in terms of our digital skills but also brushing up on our pedagogical approaches to make sure our offerings are inclusive, accessible, engaging and transformational.

We have also refreshed our content in light of COVID-19. By this I mean that we have had to consider other topics which may now have a greater significance for students, topics such as: career thinking during turbulent times, dealing with uncertainty, building resilience and online recruitment scams.

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

I don't want to generalise but it seems to me that most careers professionals love spending time around people. So I think it’s been tough for us all to be isolated from interaction with one another and with our students.

I'm not sure there's much I would have done differently - I think we have to be kind to ourselves and remember that this is unchartered territory. Plus, we all know that failure is a critical part of learning. Of course it will transpire that some things haven't worked or have not been as helpful to students as we hoped, but as professionals we are all growing so much. I actually think it's very exciting.

Being able to access learning at any time rather than only between lectures or during the week is really powerful for 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'? 

I don't think we'll ever return to 'normal' nor will the institutions we work in. In my opinion, operating in a virtual space offers students a lot of flexibility and accessibility too. If we really want to operate at scale (and I'm pretty certain this is a challenge we are all facing) then having a mixed approach of face-to-face and virtual makes perfect sense. Being able to access learning at any time rather than only between lectures or during the week is really powerful for students. I'm fairly sure we are also going to see an increase in remote learners who don't come to campus, so offering only face-to-face careers support won't be enough in the future.

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

I think they are anxious about what will happen to them, if they will find a job at all, and if they do - will it look anything like they imagined? Many are having to reconsider their ideas. I think the biggest problem is the uncertainty of everything. We know that students and graduates (and all career thinkers!) find uncertainty uncomfortable and challenging at the best of times, but COVID 19 is adding a whole new dimension to it.

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? 

There has been a lot more emotional support provided I think - reassurance and the sharing of experiences of those who graduated in previous recessions. We know there are a lot of strategies that work in challenging job markets, and we are doing our best to bring those stories to our students.

We have also seen a big rise in engagement with all of our offer, and so we have provided more resource to meet that need, as well as developing our online resources to answer key questions related to COVID-19.

A common interview question will be about resilience and dealing with change - having an internship cancelled is a brilliant example for students to use.

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

Of course this is an unwelcome effect of COVID-19 but I do think there are silver linings to be found. We have been successful in working with employers, and with our campus partners to provide virtual internships. We have created a large number of paid opportunities for students and recent graduates to input into the development of blended learning for 2020/21.

We have been providing information to students on other ways to gain experience during lockdown, and alternative activities that can also help them to develop the skills employers are looking for. On a positive note, most students (if not all) who had secured something will have had it cancelled or postponed - future employers will understand this was by no means the student's fault. Students can still add the work experience to a CV or to LinkedIn to show that they were successful in obtaining it.

We suspect a common interview question will be about resilience and dealing with change - having an internship cancelled is a brilliant example for students to use.

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? 

Yes. They have engaged in all aspects of our support - webinars, our Exeter Award, our appointments - we have been very busy.

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

Don't fear change!

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