Finding a job during or after university is about to get a whole lot harder. Employers hit by Covid-19 are cancelling work experience or cutting back on graduate recruitment, leaving thousands of students to chase a shrinking number of opportunities.
Journalism graduate Alex Cutts missed out on internships at Sheffield Hallam University earlier this year. “They had more than 1,000 applications, way more than they had for any of their graduate schemes in the past years,” she says. “I’m quite nervous about getting any work at the moment.”
While this sounds daunting, missing out on work experience isn’t the end of the world. Laura Bromley, a careers adviser at Lancaster University, explains: “The types of people that employers are going to be looking for are the ones who were in a bit of adversity, but can show what they did to support themselves.”
Dan Hawes, co-founder of Graduate Recruitment Bureau, agrees. He says the key is doing what you can to answer the inevitable question: “What did you do during lockdown?”
Start with a skills audit
It’s tempting to grab any training going but “don’t just do anything,” Hawes cautions. “Take a long look at the kind of skill set you need to build,” he adds. “Look for the gaps.”
Start by reviewing job adverts. Note which skills you already have, along with examples of when you’ve used them. Then list those you need to work on, and use that to steer your efforts instead.
Get experience online
Virtual internships and remote work experience are a good option. Many universities and employers run schemes, so search for these first. They tend to be fiercely competitive but are usually paid, and will get you working on real projects.
Otherwise, see Inside Sherpa or Bright Network. These feature pre-recorded content and hypothetical tasks. The upside is they’re available on-demand all year, plus international students won’t need to worry about visa limits.
Connect with peers
Career networks have thrived online during lockdown, and are more accessible for it. Chat forums and virtual coffee breaks are an ideal way to glean industry knowledge. Conversations with peers could also lead to work experience and training opportunities. Follow companies on social media or ask around online to see what’s available in your field.
Hawes also suggests contacting your careers department. “They may be able to connect you with the alumni society, which could be an untapped resource for finding work.”
Make your own experience
Bromley describes how one marketing student offered to help local businesses with promotions. That student learned about the job market, and was able to tell employers about times she’d liaised with clients.
Hawes says that jobs aren’t always advertised. Speculative applications may take a bit of luck, yet sometimes luck is all you need to get a foot in the door.
If you have a side business of any kind, tell employers what it’s taught you. The value isn’t in the profits, it’s the experience you get from trying. Here, that could be everything from marketing to problem solving.
Focus on skills over setting
“Voluntary work, no matter how small or insignificant, is a huge opportunity long-term,” Hawes says. Do IT is a good source for finding local roles. University societies are valuable, too. Some are dedicated to volunteering and fundraising. Others can lead to a range of professional skills, especially if you take an organisational role.
Bromley adds: “What are the issues and concerns in society right now? What can you do to support people? That could be organising community events or running workshops in schools. Start with what you know, and look for outcomes that benefit others as well as your CV.”
And don’t overlook experience gained at home and from hobbies. These are good for showing off your soft skills – such as communication, creativity and persuasion. Frame them professionally on your CV by selecting examples relevant to the workplace.
Ultimately there’s a wealth of places to get experience, Hawes says. “We’ve helped graduates before during downturns and they’ve come through it by being a bit more creative, a bit more proactive, and thinking laterally.” But he admits: “I’m not pretending it’s easy.”