By December 2020, Jessica Colombi was exhausted.
Another semester in Cleveland State ended for the Executive Director of the University’s Career Services Office. Her team’s calendars were full of more virtual office hours and weekly events with employers. Some staff had Google phone numbers that students could use to text or call directly.
“We really had turned ourselves upside down to make sure we were totally and completely available to the students,” she said. “But it was almost too much.”
College career services professionals like Colombi tend to be a pretty positive bunch. But even the most optimistic face challenges when it comes to advising graduates in the face of the economic crisis and the emotional distress that the pandemic continues to create.
Last spring, job advertisements for Bachelor graduates fell by a year 40% reported nationwide between March and May. Entry-level jobs for this group were hardest hit.
Results of the NEO team showed that the top local job postings for much of 2020 were in sectors such as healthcare, retail and accommodation / catering, in all areas where a four-year college degree may not be required. This report also found that around 80% of these vacancies did not specify requirements for a post-secondary degree, but there were “many” entry opportunities.
About five weeks into the new year, Colombi said she had been encouraged by a surge in job postings. However, the feeling fades when it’s moved by scammers trying to post to the school’s job board, or when news of local layoffs emerges. Like many urban public institutions across the country, the state of Cleveland and the city’s economy are intertwined on their behalf. The University Reports 80% of the graduates live in the region.
And this group is facing additional competition for open positions this year. Report current figures 315,000 Ohioians were unemployed in December. Colombi often reminds students that employers don’t just look at them, either. They are also considering PhD students in Youngstown State, Kent State, and the rest of Ohio’s higher education institutions.
“All the more we really hope that you will come and work with us, that you will improve this elevator sector, that you will appear at these events, meet employers, use all the opportunities we have for you and keep doing it,” said Colombi.
This semester, the conversations in Colombia focus on encouraging students to focus on the present. Distance internships and jobs that she previously viewed with skepticism are now a realistic option. There is more dialog on how to prepare for video chat. Mock interviews and CV workshops are conducted through Zoom.
“We absolutely speak to students that this may not be the time for your dream job,” she said.
Four in ten youngest college graduates said they were underemployed in their first position before the pandemic. This first job is important according to findings from labor market analyst Burning Glass Technologies. The results showed that in most areas, employees starting out this way were more likely to remain in the cycle of underemployment for up to a decade.
In Cleveland, Colombi is reminding students to focus on the long game, especially when it comes to some of the area’s top employers.
“UH (University Hospitals) or the Cleveland Clinic are currently hiring many jobs to do laboratory tests,” she said. “It may not be your dream job, but it is a foot in the door to an institution where they develop you as a professional and there is room for growth.”
But the first step in these conversations is to find the students. It’s more work now. Gone are the moments when a student was caught walking across campus or shoved into an elevator together to talk about a possible job or internship.
“We just have to get in touch with them to help them understand the power of their own history and have a network,” she said. “It’s not just about your major, but also about your interests, your skills and your value system.”
An improved social media presence offers testimonials from students who have used the Career Services Office. The hope is to lure their colleagues.
“I really appreciate the help Career Services have given me with this endeavor,” read part of a note from a student Announce a new job six weeks ago. “I really doubt I would have gotten the position without her.”
There are also targeted email explosions, weekend chat hours, and leveraging internal relationships with other departments on campus to find more people to connect with and advise. Despite the best efforts of the Colombian team, some of the university’s 12,000 full-time students could still prove to be out of reach.
“What makes me nervous are the students who fall through the cracks because we can’t find them and they don’t come to see us,” she said.
About 55% of CSU students are women, and almost a third are people of color – groups that are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Colombi said portions of the appointments that actually take place are spent coaching students on how not to “freak out” because of a lack of internet access or a computer that doesn’t work consistently.
“Our students are the first generation in their families to go to college,” she said. “They’re non-traditional students, they work in other professions, they take care of family members. And the pandemic was really just an add-on.”
However, she said they continue to be resilient and their staff encourage them to remain flexible. This also includes expanding the definition of networking. Replacing the mainstays of face-to-face events with recommendations that students can connect to LinkedIn or join professional associations has been a major focus of the department.
80 students recently attended a free webinar on the subject, which resulted in 80 more email workers being added to their distribution lists. Two wins in one as the journey of the career services department and job-seeking students continues.