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Finding employment during the coronavirus pandemic: A glimmer of hope for college seniors

Students should continue to polish their resumes and portfolios, apply for jobs, seek guidance and prepare for virtual interviews, experts said.

Gwen Saccocia, a senior at Villanova University, was hired by Boston Children's Hospital the day students had to leave campus because of the coronavirus.
Gwen Saccocia, a senior at Villanova University, was hired by Boston Children's Hospital the day students had to leave campus because of the coronavirus.Read moreCourtesy of Gwen Saccocia

College senior Gwen Saccocia in February noticed job postings in her field and began applying.

The Villanova University biology major’s search accelerated as the coronavirus spread.

And on March 13, the very day that Villanova announced students had to leave campus and continue instruction remotely, she got a job.

"It was one happy thing that happened that day,” said Saccocia, who will work as a research assistant in a gastroenterology lab at Boston Children’s Hospital.

But other college seniors haven’t been as lucky, given the economic shutdown. More than 16 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the last three weeks. A job market that looked relatively good before the coronavirus has been upended, and graduates who enter the job market during a downturn tend to get lower wages and take years to catch up, research has shown.

» ASK US: Do you have a question about the coronavirus and how it affects your health, work and life? Ask our reporters.

Some companies are withdrawing offers and canceling internships. Others are delaying start dates or moving to remote work assignments. And some just aren’t responding to eager job seekers, or are announcing hiring freezes.

“It’s been a rather abrupt change,” said Sharon Hansen, director of career and post-graduate development at Ursinus College in Collegeville.

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Retail, hospitality, tourism, and even some health fields, like home health aides, have been hard hit. And it could get worse.

But experts at college career centers said they are ramping up virtual support to students and telling them not to lose heart.

“There is a lot that has stopped, but not the whole world has stopped," said Kevin Grubb, executive director of Villanova’s career center.

Villanova continues to get job postings, he said. One day last week came posts for a high school guidance counselor, an assistant director of technology, and a data scientist, as well as internships working on a campaign in Washington and as a cost accountant.

This month, a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 64% of employers were not revoking offers to full-time recruits and interns, while 25% said they were considering it. More than a third said they were delaying the start date for summer interns, while 29% said they were moving interns to a virtual program.

A recent Rutgers University survey found that more than two-thirds of companies intended to proceed with summer internships already planned, said Scott Borden, a program director at Rutgers’ Office of Career Exploration and Success. And only 6% of seniors said companies had rescinded job offers, while 13% said companies had changed start dates.

Students should continue to polish their resumés and portfolios, apply for jobs, seek guidance, and prepare for virtual interviews, experts said. Many companies interviewed virtually before the virus; now most conduct interviews that way. William Jones, senior director of Rutgers’ center, released tips: Dress as if the interview is in person; maintain proper etiquette, including listening and looking straight into the camera; test technology tools beforehand; and clean the room you interview from, removing distractions and adjusting lighting.

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Career center experts told students not to stop searching.

“It will come back," Borden said of the job market, "and you want to be in the game at that point, not on the sidelines thinking all is lost.”

Ursinus last week offered students tips in a webinar; it also is developing an “employer support” plan to show how its students can help companies, said Hansen. Students who make clear how they can aid a employer during this difficult time are most likely to be successful, she said.

“Hopefully, this will yield opportunities for students and employers,” she said.

» READ MORE: The push is on at college career centers: They work with students earlier and alumni decades later

At Villanova, the career center is offering one-on-one virtual sessions with counselors and facilitating virtual recruitment events, Grubb said. The center also asked alumni to send job tips, while offering webinars for job-hunting alumni.

Grubb said some seniors already have jobs, noting that some large firms finished hiring in the fall. Others, like biology major Haley Randall, remain on the hunt.

Randall said she’s looking for something in the government, environmental research, or nonprofit sectors, like a nature conservancy. But she’s not putting undue pressure on herself.

“My game plan right now is to get my name out there and get hired in any kind of field that will give me the relevant experience to move forward.” said Randall, 22, of Syracuse, N.Y.

» FAQ: Your coronavirus questions, answered.

Victoria Zhou, 23, a Rutgers senior from Atlantic Highlands, N.J., said summer internships she applied for have been put on hold or canceled. But Zhou is staying positive.

“Everyone is just trying to find their footing and trying to find a new normal in all of this,” said Zhou, a journalism and media studies major. "It’s comforting to know that everyone is kind of going through this together.”

She said she continues to update her portfolio, polish her resumé, and call past supervisors and coworkers. She’s set a goal of applying for two jobs a day. "I’m definitely considering jobs that I wouldn’t consider before,” she said.

Saccocia said she asked the Boston hospital if she could come for an interview the first week of March, knowing she would be home in Massachusetts for spring break. The hospital agreed. She got an offer the next day, and it was finalized on the day she had to leave Villanova.

“I felt very lucky," she said, "that this happened right before things started to get really, really crazy.”