Networking and job searching have changed in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that hasn’t stopped Utah’s universities from adapting to the challenge of connecting and guiding their students and graduates to employment opportunities.

“I do think those students that are very intentional and, for lack of a better word, aggressive about pursuing the beginning of their career are still finding the opportunities in the state. The opportunities are out there,” said Preston Nielson, University of Utah associate director of outreach and engagement.

Be it an internship that leads to a career upon graduation or gives a student work experience in their field, or outright job offers upon graduation, the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic cast a large shadow over the future of many graduates in 2020 and 2021.

The student career services of Utah Valley University, Brigham Young University and the University of Utah each adapted to the pandemic’s social distance guidelines while working to provide continued support to enrolled students and alumni in their job searches.

Will Utah graduates get jobs?

The University of Utah’s student survey from the last six semesters, which is sent out right before graduation to their students and is self-reported, still didn’t show graduates becoming stymied in their efforts to enter the workforce.

“Some colleges like science or health have a larger proportion of students saying ‘I’m going to continue my education,’ but in large part, the primary plan is for employment,” said Stan Inman, the University of Utah’s director of the career and professional development center.

Over 70% of the U.’s graduates plan on staying in Utah for their work and over 16% plan to relocate to other parts of the United States. Of the 10,000 plus students who replied to the survey, over 7,000 have already accepted employment or been admitted to their chosen graduate school.

The top five states reported by U. alumni for employment have been Utah, followed by California, Washington and Texas.

“We recognize that there is a real need to try to engage students in effective job search practices,” said Inman.

Brigham Young University’s Managing Director of Career Services, Jodi Chowen, said the school originally had 93% of BYU students achieve their career outcome by the six-month mark after graduation, but the number dipped to 89% in 2020.

“What we found, looking at the data, is it just took students longer to find a job. Where they may have been more inclined to be employed either at graduation or within a month or two of graduation, it was maybe taking them three months or longer, depending on the field, to find a job,” she said.

She said despite the COVID-19 pandemic causing the collective community to feel as if it was headed over a cliff, looking back, the schools and companies adapted.

“It just lengthened the time to employment rather than eliminating opportunities,” Chowen said. “If you just keep trying, just keep at it, be patient, work your plan, you’ll get it.”

UVU, BYU and the University of Utah, currently facilitate networking for internships and jobs via the customer relationship management system Handshake, all available to alumni and current students.

Michael Snapp, director of Utah Valley University’s Career Development Center, said the program has over 900 universities across the U.S. that connect employers to students and alum through the Handshake service.

Utah Valley University career counselor Travis Reynolds helps a student with her LinkedIn profile and portfolio during a virtual call in his office in the Career Development Center on the university’s Orem campus April 2, 2021. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

“Employers know exactly who they’re going to be getting on Handshake. They are going to be getting recent college graduates, or people at some point within their academic career looking for an internship,” Snapp said. “They’re not posting these jobs with the idea of getting people with four or five years of experience.”

Nielson said the U has more jobs posted on their internal job board than ever before. He said those jobs are local, regional and national.

“The jobs are out there. They just need to be sought,” said Nielson.

What have universities done to facilitate employability?

“I think it’s just trying to help students understand like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s COVID. I don’t even know how to do a job search now!’ Well, the reality is you’re going to do it the exact same way that you do that you would have done it before, which is outreaching people and having conversations,” said Chowen.

She said BYU students had many options open to them, such as resume and cover letter advice, that when the pandemic hit they were already available virtually.

She said the school has hosted seven virtual job and career fairs in February and March of 2021, ranging from generic to geographic to international careers.

Chowen said BYU helps students via its in-person, and now virtual, career center, in the Ernest L. Wilkinson Student Center on campus with resources and career directors. But she did say being virtual somehow created an increased interest from students.

“It’s like the barrier is way down now, like students are more willing to do a Zoom appointment than maybe walk through the scary doors of career services,” she said.

Chowen said BYU’s Career Services focus heavily on the principles in “The 2-Hour Job Search: Using Technology to Get the Right Job Faster” by Steve Dalton, and career directors emphasize information interviewing as a strategy for students.

“That book is one of the first and best systematic outlines of how to approach a job search systematically. So we’ve lifted principals from that to teach a course in our student development classes, and to put into our counseling appointments, and essentially, it makes like the whole prospect of job search far less scary,” she said.

Chowen also said even though information interviewing is basically networking, it is the best-kept secret to success. She said it allows students to approach employers and potential future colleagues to gain information about how they got their job and what they actually do, taking away the fear that professional networking can instill in students.

“I feel like our underlying message is one of becoming a true professional, where that regardless of what environment you’re in ... we do teach students to put their pants on, and whether or not you choose to is up to you, but it really the message, just be a professional wherever you are (and) be true to your brand of who you want to be in whatever environment you’re in,” said Chowen.

The U. focuses on coaching and its career expos. Just like UVU and BYU, the university offers normal career and internship and STEM job fairs, but its career expos and coaching is just a little more targeted.

According to the program’s website, career expos are scheduled events, posted on Handshake, and are industry specific. Inman said with the emphasis on connecting students to those in the industry they are interested in goes further with the U.’s branded “AlumniFire,” where students can speak to alum who can help with networking, give informational interviews and more.

As for the U.’s Career and Professional Development Center, its full-time coaches help students and alumni up to two years after graduation find work.

“Our coaches do a good job trying to get a very good knowledge of what the job market looks like for those graduates in the colleges that they align with,” said Inman.

He said that the top five coaching topics the U. has had started with career exploration, resume help, job search tips and strategies, and graduate school applications.

“The other piece that I think we’ve been really successful in is we’ve offered an online chat that has been available since last March that has been available to students on demand,” said Inman. “I think being there for students ... they can jump on our site and get a response in real-time.”

Despite online, virtual and in-person resources, Nielson said the U. has seen and heard the anxieties of its students.

“There’s a whole cohort of students who really have a, in their opinion, very glaring hole in their resume,” said Nielson.

“For the past year or so where they weren’t able to get that real-world experience. I know that’s a huge anxiety for students, but whenever it’s brought up I also try to tell students that recruiters are not ignorant to (COVID-19 circumstances),” he said.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of a narrative around ‘How did you pivot? How did you adapt during this unprecedented time to still sort of continue to move forward in your career goals and interests?’ But perhaps in a way that you didn’t think it was going to go down or in a way that would have previously been considered nontraditional,” said Nielson. 

Snapp said UVU works hard to offer its alumni help free of charge.

“I don’t care if they graduated 30 years ago, 50 years ago, five months ago, we will have a one-on-one career counseling session with them as well, they have access to everything current students have access to,” he said.

On top of that, he said UVU’s Career Development Center works with its Alumni Services Center and sends out a monthly article that offers career advice.

The newsletter covers topics like “how to prepare for a virtual job interview. We’ve sent them instructions and video tutorials on how to use Handshake, how to be resilient, how to negotiate a higher salary, how to get back into the workforce,” said Snapp.

COVID-19 affected top-of-mind job searching and student morale

University of Utah’s Nielson and BYU’s Chowen said the anxieties students admitted were internship and job placement opportunities being scarce, nonexistent or rescinded.

“Students who had offers for either internships or full time, the offers (were rescinded). I want to say it’s actually turned out to be a small percentage, but when a few of them started happening we were panicked,” said Chowen.

She said students who had internships set up in 2020 for academic credit, only about 12% of them were lost completely or delayed until 2021. Chowen said including the 12% that were rescinded or delayed, of the overall number of internships BYU students had obtained, 30% were reported to be a blended work environment, 20% were remote work and the remaining were on-site work.

“I expected that to be a bigger drop, and I expected it to be like, half of them were remote, and it wasn’t. So I think companies adapted quickly. And that’s why, especially in Utah, and it’s not true across all parts of the country. And we really didn’t see a big dip in employment opportunities for students,” said Chowen.

Chowen said the switch to all virtual career and job fairs dropped turnout to about half of what was seen prior to the pandemic.

“But I do think what we’ve seen, and I’ll say it for myself too, in this COVID year, in virtual meetings is that we get to the essentials,” said Chowen.

“So now we get right into a meeting and we get right to our agenda and what we’ve lost is that kind of informal seeing people as you’re walking across campus or seeing people in the hallway, or we’re so tired of being on Zoom, sometimes, that we just get like ‘Let’s just get to it so we can get off the screen,’” she said.

Representatives from every school said their students experienced Zoom fatigue, which could be in part to blame for the lack of student attendance to the virtual fairs, one-on-ones with employers and demonstrations.

“I think the funny thing is that now that we’re virtual, every resource in our office is more accessible than ever. Everything that we do is more accessible than ever. But the caveat is that you need to be more intentional than ever as a student to benefit from it,” said Nielson.

“For example, when we, when we had large career fairs. A good percentage of the students that would attend were students and maybe didn’t mean to attend, or that they heard about it that morning, or they were just walking through the Union. And it was sort of, it was sort of happenstance, but it was a good one,” he said.

Nielson said the U. saw only a 60% turnout for virtual fairs in the fall of 2020. The other 40% ended up being those who stumbled upon the fair when it was originally held in person and on campus.

But University of Utah’s career services have been working to advertise loudly on social media the career help, advice and opportunities out there for alumni and students.

Snapp said UVU is facing the same problem with virtual job and career fairs. He said it has seen less than half the turnout it originally had with on-campus fairs.

“Now, a lot of the students that would come in person might be somebody who, for whatever reasons, despite our best efforts, didn’t even know a fair was going on,” said Snapp. “Well, we’re not getting those kinds of numbers. Our quality hasn’t changed, as far as the employers are concerned, but it’s a yes, we’re seeing far fewer students.”

Snapp did say UVU has seen those students who arrive at the virtual fairs be prepared due to the pre-registration and limited slots on a virtual platform, versus the last-minute arrivals who would come to an in-person fair.

“You think it’s far more convenient. It’s not always. And it could be a little bit more intimidating and the connection just not as rich,” said Snapp.

Inman said the disengagement of students’ desire to be involved in career planning and execution has been a major downside of the pandemic.

“That’s been a challenge, I think, for students to overcome. Just the idea that the future is not as positive when really there are opportunities,” Inman said.

Nielson said those who worked in career services during 2008 and the years after, during the Great Recession, had more incentive to delay entering the workforce than they do now.

“I don’t have any numbers to back that up at this point but I would have to guess that grad school applications are up, but I haven’t seen anything that it’s quite as serious of a career (issue) as a decade ago,” he said.

Snapp said UVU is seeing an upward trend of employers wanting to recruit on campus this year, especially more than in 2020. He said the trend probably isn’t unique to UVU.

“We’re seeing that upward trend now, whether it’s because of vaccines or whatever, that’s probably a byproduct of the vaccine for the pandemic getting a little bit under control, but they are saying they want to come back on campuses. They missed that in-person interaction,” he said.

Snapp said in-person interviews are great for employers but vital to their students, where students seem less shy in person.