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Five ways for Gen Z members to learn or earn in a pandemic summer of busted plans

Sophia Cohen, 17, pivoted from a course in Berlin and some travel to volunteer work and studying German at home.
Source: Sophia Cohen

Like many high school students, Sophia Cohen, 17, had planned a packed summer: a German intensive language course in Berlin, followed by travel. 

Her excitement faded, though, when the coronavirus pandemic began spreading. Cohen, a rising high school senior, spent a nerve-wracking month at home in Seattle waiting to hear what would happen with her program.

When she heard the news, she felt sad but eventually formed other plans: studying German online with some of the people who'd planned on attending the session, volunteering with a local blood donation center, plying her photography business and babysitting.

And, Cohen says, she tweaked her long-term goals and plans to move abroad next summer.

"It took time to discover a better alternative," Cohen said. She credits her mother with helping her to find the silver lining.

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Cohen's change in direction is right in step with the current world, says Jenny Blake, a New York-based career strategist and host of the podcast Pivot.

"It's the summer of self-education," Blake said.

"Shake off the idea you'll earn less and be disadvantaged for the rest of your life because you're graduating in a recession," Blake said. "Statistically we can't all be the exception, but tell yourself, 'That is not going to apply to me.'"

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Employers will want to know how you spent your time during Covid-19, says Jill Tipograph, co-founder of career coaching firm Early Stage Careers in New York.

"It's a time of opportunity, discovery, development — and it's a time for you to really figure out who you are and what you want to do," Tipograph said.

Check out some of these projects to see which fits in with your goals.

Listen up

For a quick intro to a field you're interested in, Blake suggests immersing yourself in industry-specific podcasts.

"It's almost like having an internship, listening to people in diversity, equity, inclusion, interviewing," Blake said. With more than a million podcasts, you should be able to find at least 10 shows that are relevant to very specific industries, from psychology to law.  

Your own internship

Find a company with a gap you can fill.

Recent grads can't know their whole future or pick the perfect internship or job, Blake says, so relieve yourself of that pressure. "This pandemic created tremendous uncertainty for everyone, so you're not alone," she said.

Try a smaller, more limited project with a specific purpose, and approach companies that interest you.

But, Blake says, don't make your statement too broad. Announcements like "I'm available; I'm looking for intern opportunities" are vague.

Instead, dig into a company so you can offer a precise project. Perhaps they have a podcast but no transcriptions. If that's something you can do, craft an email that talks about your skillset and offer a solution.  

Think small

Many projects are referred to as micro-internships, Tipograph says, a concept pioneered by Parker Dewey, an online company that helps connect students and employers.

"These are projects where students spend five to 30-plus hours executing a real project for a real company, and often get some type of stipend," Tipograph said.

Think local 

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See if you can provide a service for a business in your community.

"Maybe there is a role around reopening," Blake said.

If you're feeling ambitious, consider pitching a podcast to a company that does not have one.

You could pitch a 10-episode series to a local business, Blake says, on some topic that ties in with their business. Or approach it from your perspective as a member of Gen Z.

Upskill summer 

Scout potential internships and jobs, and note the qualifications they're looking for. That's how you make a to-do list of skills to acquire. 

"Every job needs Excel," Tipograph said.

If you're not familiar, she suggests getting the certification. Consider becoming expert in other programs such as Microsoft Office, Photoshop, InDesign or Canva.

"If you go on Skillshare or Udemy, a lot of things are free," Tipograph said. Many sites, including LinkedIn Learning, offer free trials.