College Voices

College graduates are struggling to make up for the ‘lost year’ created by the coronavirus pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic created a feeling of a "lost year" for a lot of students — students were sent home to do remote schooling, internships were canceled and for those graduating into the pandemic, getting a job felt impossible. This wasn't their college dream.

"I utilized my entire network — from university professors, friends, family, and friends of family, but I had no luck landing a new grad role during the pandemic. The mental toll of not having a job was exhausting," said Christian Pafford, a 2020 graduate from American University.

Christian Pafford, a 2020 graduate from American Univerity.
Photo: Thomas Lee Pafford

Fortunately, Pafford eventually landed a position as a quality control assistant. He explained that he felt extremely fortunate to have found a job during that time because many of his peers were not so lucky.

 How do you explain the gap in your resume?

The coronavirus pandemic created a gap in many students' resumes and now, a year later, they're feeling the pressure to make up for the work experience they missed out on last summer.

"How do they explain what didn't happen last summer?" said Brenda Stover, assistant dean at the Villanova School of Business. "We know that there's a portion of students whose internships that they had planned didn't convert to a virtual experience … That's the difficult part, it's the stress that recent grads are putting on themselves around not having a formal internship the summer before they graduated."

But Stover said the pressure that these students are feeling may be self-imposed. We all lived through this same experience — students, graduates and potential employers. Stover said employers understand the impacts of the pandemic and are probably willing to offer a significant amount of grace for students who did not have a formal internship experience the summer before they graduated. 

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Now, that doesn't mean we should all show up to the next job interview and expect a pass. 

What can really set you apart at a job interview, is if you show that you are able to roll with whatever crazy situation life has dealt you — and still find opportunities. You can do things like taking summer courses, earning LinkedIn Learning certifications, and attending virtual networking events. 

 For those who did not have an internship last summer, Stover advises graduates to reframe their thinking and focus on what skills and experiences they bring to the table.

 Challenges of remote work

For those students who were lucky enough to still do a virtual internship, there were new challenges: Many found it difficult to feel connected with their co-workers and adjust to the new environment while sitting in their apartment or childhood home.

Susie Juarez, a 2021 graduate from the University of Virginia, explained that it was difficult to connect with her fellow interns while working in a remote internship during the summer of 2020. "I really didn't meet any other interns," Juarez admitted. "People didn't talk to each other on a daily basis. It was like a bunch of strangers meeting for the first time. It didn't feel super personal."

Susie Juarez, a 2021 graduate from the University of Virginia
Photo: Cecilia Juarez

Juarez is not alone in this sentiment. According to Bob Orndorff, senior director at Penn State's Career Services, many students reported how difficult it has been to feel involved in a company's culture and work environment while working remotely.

He explained, "Working from home makes it more difficult to engage in organic conversations in the lobby and around the office — interactions that contribute to early professional growth."

Instead, Orndorff says new employees and interns need to be strategic and take the initiative to communicate with their supervisor and co-workers. 

Making the most out of the situation

For graduates starting in virtual internships and entry-level jobs, Brenda Stover implores students to utilize the resources available to them to their potential.

"Jump into the experience with both feet. Don't make the assumption that because you're remote your position isn't really starting. Prove to the people you are working with that you are embracing the role and the opportunity regardless of the modality."

Neesa Quillin, a recent graduate from the University of Central Florida, encourages students to embrace the obstacles and to learn from them to keep moving forward. She says, "Focus on your path and what's important to you, and if you find yourself in a spot where things aren't going as planned then take a step back and find out what you can learn and experience from where you're at … Every obstacle is merely a stepping stone to get to your goal."

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Quillin works in the hospitality industry, a field heavily impacted by the pandemic. However, she utilized her network and connections to find a job. She stresses the importance of focusing on yourself and not worrying about the successes of others.

"Do not compare your success to others. I know, it sounds a lot easier than it is to do, but it honestly doesn't help. Some people are going to luck out and get their dream job right after graduation, some might even get it before graduation. But a lot of people won't get their dream job right away, especially with everything going on right now."

Pafford shared a similar sentiment, saying that it is OK to not be working your dream job right away and that new opportunities will come with time. The key is to stay open-minded because new opportunities can come from anywhere.

Networking

Many students found that taking advantage of their personal and professional networks helped significantly in finding a job during this time.

Juarez emphasized the importance of leveraging personal connections and putting forth an effort to ask for help. She believes that connections can come from anywhere.

"People think they don't have connections. My advice is that you do have connections, you just have to make an effort to ask. Whether that's knocking on your neighbor's door to see if they know somebody … It doesn't have to be something magnificent. Everybody knows somebody. Just because you don't know someone high up enough doesn't mean you can't get a job."

And we're not just talking about your neighbor next door. Reach out to co-workers, people at companies and in jobs you are interested in, or friends of friends. Connect with them on LinkedIn, ask them to do a virtual coffee chat to learn more about what they do and what their advice is for you. 

Orndorff explained that students should take advantage of the fact that people are working remotely when connecting with others. He said, "Students should use the remote factor to their advantage when it comes to networking.  It is considerably more feasible and efficient for both students and their networking contacts to participate in a virtual meeting than in-person meeting."

Taking advantage of alumni networks is also an essential tool for networking, Stover says. A great place to start is to reach out to alumni.

Students and recent grads have some great advice for the Class of 2021 when it comes to looking for a job: Stay positive and optimistic, be confident in your skills and qualifications, and take advantage of your personal connections. There is no one easy way to find a job. 

Erin Lyons, a graduate from Bates College, said that persistence and confidence were essential in her job search.

"It can definitely feel discouraging at times when you're applying to jobs and not hearing back from any of them … so much of it for me just ended up being an attitude thing. It was very easy to get in my head and get discouraged, but that wasn't going to help me at all."

Erin Lyons, a 2021 graduate from Bates College
Photo: Robert Lyons

And, things are looking brighter for recent grads: When the pandemic first hit, hiring slowed in practically every industry. Many graduates from the Class of 2020 were still looking for jobs this year when the Class of 2021 was getting ready to graduate. But, a year later, hiring has exploded, and many companies are now looking to hire. 

Job search engine Adzuna said that job openings for graduates have more than doubled this year compared to last year. Adzuna reported some of the hottest areas hiring right now are health care, logistics and information technology. 

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So, if you're looking for a job, shake off that feeling of a "lost year." Focus on skills you've learned and what you bring to the table. And get out there and network! You never know where – or who – your next job will come from.

CNBC's "College Voices″ is a series written by CNBC interns from universities across the country about getting their college education, managing their own money and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Miguel Badía is a student at Villanova University majoring in marketing and business analytics and minoring in communication. He is a summer 2021 CNBC en Español intern helping to translate and produce videos in Spanish for Telemundo. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.