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Job hunting amid the coronavirus pandemic: How to network … from your couch

Key Points
  • Kyle Clark is a student at Hamilton College.
  • He connected with students and career advisors to get tips for job hunting and networking in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic when most of us are stuck at home.

CNBC's "College Voices 2020" is a series written by CNBC summer interns from universities across the country about coming of age, launching new careers and job hunting during a global pandemic. They're finding their voices during a time of great social change and hope for a better future. What money issues are they facing? How are they navigating their student loans? How are they getting work experience, networking and applying for jobs when so many opportunities have been canceled or postponed? How important is diversity and a company's values to Gen Z job seekers?  

Networking is an essential part of finding a job — especially your first job. But coronavirus has dramatically impacted the job search process for students, forcing them to get creative when it comes to building contacts and breaking into their field.

An astounding 85% of jobs are filled by networking of some sort, according to a survey (pre-pandemic) of 3,000 people by consultant Lou Adler and LinkedIn. Adler and other hiring experts talk about the "hidden job market" — that many jobs are filled internally or by referrals before they're even posted.

"Job seekers need to realize networking is not trying to meet as many people as possible. It's about meeting a few well-connected people who can vouch for your ability and who are willing to refer you to a few other well-connected people," Adler said in a post for LinkedIn announcing his findings. 

Johner Images | Getty Images

Most people think of networking as having coffee with someone or going to an industry event – things that aren't so easy in the middle of this pandemic. But really, it's about making connections. And that's something you can do right from your couch!

Start with people you know

Hannah Morgan, a job search strategist who calls herself the "Career Sherpa," suggests starting with friends, family and former colleagues. It's easier to start with people you know — it will help build your confidence and then your network just keeps growing. And, when reaching out, don't be afraid to ask how someone is doing in the middle of all this, Morgan says. Everyone is going through this extremely difficult situation so just asking how someone is doing will probably be greatly appreciated.

She says never approach networking with a "me first" attitude — remember that a successful network is like friendships, mutually beneficial. 

Some students are working existing connections they've made through past internships. Others are turning to career centers for assistance in their innovative pursuit of nontraditional work-related projects and experiences.  

Phil Gow, a Hamilton College rising senior government major who has held high-profile internships in Philadelphia and on Capitol Hill, understands just how essential networking is when it comes to securing work in politics. Last fall, before the coronavirus pandemic, he would attend a minimum of two networking events a week. Phil utilized his connections made in these events to discover summer 2020 internships. He finds himself remaining in contact with these former colleagues, including fellow interns, as he searches for opportunities.  

Phil Gow working at his home outside of Philadelphia.
Source: David Gow

Of course, this summer is trickier – a lot of internships are canceled. But, that makes networking all the more important – setting the ground work for future opportunities.

"I spoke with friends (former co-workers) in DC to determine that the federal internships were going to be non-existent this summer. They will be helpful in the future as I search for government work, though. I also keep in touch with people I interned with in Congress."

Don't be afraid to reach out to someone you don't know

Gow said he networks with professionals via email and checks his LinkedIn account several times a week. And, you don't have to limit it to people you know or once worked with.

"If you see someone you want to meet, introduce yourself," Gow said, adding that it's important to follow up and not just let the connection fizzle. You never know when someone will have a job opportunity – or know someone else who does. "Fun fact: people know each other—it's a small world," he added. 

It's also important to note that making a connection doesn't have to center around a specific job or opportunity, but rather, common interests.

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"I still keep in touch with many of the people I met in DC. Mostly in the media and in Congress. What we actually talk about has less to do with employers and more to do with our country right now," Gow said. "It's great to keep in touch with smart and capable people that view politics (and more broadly, life) with a unique vantage point. People always expect there to be an angle when maintaining those relationships, but I maintain them because they are good people who care about the country. That's all that matters."

Gow recognizes the value of a vigorous network consisting of individuals at varying stages in their careers. He believes that many college students overlook their peers and professors, who may be integral members of their professional web down the road. 

Stay in touch

Ben Leit, a rising Hamilton College junior, landed an internship with Senator Cory Booker — and he got it through networking. Like most undergraduates, Leit found himself staring at a bleak job market as the summer swiftly approached. 

"I applied to dozens of internships pre-COVID. Many of my pursued roles were canceled. But I was not discouraged. I remained in contact with a member of the Booker campaign and decided to reach out to express my desire to contribute to their team."

And, it worked!

Ben Leit and his family meet with Senator Cory Booker in the summer of 2019.
Source: Sen. Cory Booker

"I made a great impression in the original interview. My contact appreciated my efforts to remain in contact, and to follow up. Soon after, she called me and offered me a position. Thankfully, the internship was brought back from the dead!" Leit said.

Leit attributes his success to his persistence, contact management, and self-assurance.

"I would not be conducting an internship today if it were not for my networking strategies and self-confidence fostered as a musician and actor." 

Create your own professional experience

Campus career centers are also a good place to get advice and build your network.

Some might see the coronavirus pandemic, with all of the canceled internships and stay-at-home orders, as a setback for young careers. But Heather Wixson, associate director of Hamilton College Career Center, said students should look at it as an opportunity for personal and professional development — and to demonstrate initiative to future employers.

"Students get to write their own story of the summer 2020 by combining experiences which may include a mix of career-related activities such as career research, networking, personal projects, and part-time remote options rather than one single opportunity," she said. 

Ms. Wixson is impressed with her students' creativity and resourcefulness in response to the bleak summer internship market.  They're working on their resumes, connecting with young alumni from the school, researching industry trends and practicing interviewing. And, instead of lamenting a lost opportunity, or waiting for the next one, they're creating blogs or other projects to highlight their skills and interests. Basically, creating their own career experience.

"I am encouraging students to showcase their research and personal projects via blogs or portfolios," Wixson said. You can then link to them from your resume or LinkedIn profile and use them as talking points in a cover letter or job interview. "It can really highlight a student's interest and enthusiasm about an industry topic, and many times enthusiasm is just as important as 'traditional' experiences like internships."

These will not only be impressive to future employers, but they can be great talking points when you're networking. When one of your contacts asks what you've been up to, you can tell them about your project. That's something that will help make you stand out — and could be what makes them think of you first when a job opportunity comes up.

It demonstrates your ability to "think nimbly and look toward the future with confidence in this difficult time," Wixson said. 

Make time to network

It's important to take time to find people you want to connect with. And, once you have connections, you have to nurture them like any relationship.

 Morgan suggests setting aside 30 minutes a day for networking.

That can be browsing your LinkedIn feed, commenting on articles, sharing articles, and finding new companies and new contacts to follow.

A time of hardship, uncertainty, and scarcity doesn't have to be a setback. It can be an opportunity for students willing to take matters into their own hands.

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.