Skye Muller did everything right as she prepared for her HR career. She graduated with a degree in human resources from Oregon’s Portland State in March. She participated in every luncheon and networking event offered by Portland HRMA, her local Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) chapter. She attended numerous other industry meetings, including SHRM’s 2019 Annual Conference & Exposition and the 2019 professional and student conventions held by SHRM’s Northwest Human Resource Management Association chapter. She studied for and passed the SHRM-CP exam and was confident about finding a job in a strong market brimming with possibilities.
That was pre-COVID-19. Now, like many other young, aspiring HR professionals, Muller finds herself in a changed world where job offers have been rescinded, internships have vanished and apprenticeships are being delayed. Recent graduates and young professionals like her must adapt to a world of virtual job fairs and interviews as they face more competition for fewer available positions. Sometimes, entry-level jobs go to more experienced candidates as employers have their pick of applicants.
“I’ve updated my resume 200 times, and it’s the best it’s ever looked,” says Muller, who had worked as an HR associate and administrative assistant in the Portland area before enrolling at Portland State. “But right now it seems like no one is hiring. I read the job boards every day. There aren’t a lot of listings. Sometimes just one.”
Jaden Arbuckle, another Portland State graduate, is in a similar situation. After working for more than a year as an HR coordinator in Portland for professional services firm Novogradac, she’s ready to move on from the company, based in San Francisco.
“The pool of candidates is huge right now, and with graduation, it’s growing,” Arbuckle says. “You see jobs listed as entry-level, but then the description requires one to three years’ experience.”
‘I’ve updated my resume 200 times, and it’s the best it’s ever looked. But right now it seems like no one is hiring.’
It’s gone from a candidates’ market to an employers’ market in a short time, according to Jennifer Johnson, founder of the HR Network, which posts HR jobs in Oregon and Washington. She says postings slumped 75 percent from February to June.
In addition, many companies are re-examining their needs amid the recession brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and deciding what skills and abilities they consider most crucial.
“Companies now are asking, ‘What new jobs do we really need, and can they be done remotely?’ ” Johnson says.
Laura Hickerson, assistant director of employer engagement at Virginia’s James Madison University, says most part-time positions and internships listed recently have been converted to virtual jobs and shortened from 10-week work periods to arrangements lasting eight weeks or less. Many internships—especially in the hospitality and sports industries—have been canceled or pushed to January 2021.
Job seekers must adapt to new ways of finding employment. The campus job fair market—perhaps the most effective networking venue for company recruiters and college students—has undergone a significant transformation, with most events becoming virtual.
For example, the Fox School of Business at Temple University in Philadelphia formerly hosted two large career fairs each year, according to Corinne Snell, assistant dean of student professional development. Each one welcomed 750 to 850 students and 100 to 110 companies. Now the school is organizing smaller, clustered events based on industry sector or concentrations and majors within the school.
“When things slowed in March, many of the corporate recruiters who were scheduled for on-campus interviews told us they would not be coming because of COVID,” Snell says. “We set up one-on-one Zoom-meeting interviews for our students to make sure they still had the opportunity to connect virtually.”
Snell says it’s time to rethink the traditional large-scale, in-person recruiting model. “Trying to effectively sell yourself to an employer while standing 6 feet away with a mask on in a large room is a challenge for anyone,” she says.
Other challenges abound. Companies’ attitudes toward internships will change, says Julian C. Dalzell, a lecturer at the University of South Carolina’s Business School who spent 43 years in the HR department at Shell Oil Co.
“They’ll be very picky about to whom they extend a full-time offer when it’s completed,” Dalzell says of hiring companies. “For optics’ sake, given the choice, companies will probably retain an employee with a year or two of experience rather than make an offer to one who has interned there for two months.”
Given the hypercompetitive entry-level employment battle, Dalzell says students who are granted internships or part-time work must show that they’re willing and able to bring something extra.
“As a professor who’s teaching grad school students, I expect my students to come to class with a point of view on a given lecture topic, even if I disagree with them,” Dalzell says. “Taking notes is fine, but our students’ average starting salary upon graduating is about $80,000. If I’m an employer, I can pay someone a lot less to take notes on the job.”
Experts say students may need to modify their job goals in the current economic environment, at least temporarily.
Students should keep in mind that career paths don’t always move in a direct line to the perfect job, Johnson says. “Sometimes you just have to take a job to gain experience,” she explains. “This doesn’t mean that you’re off-track. It just means you needed to take a temporary detour.”
Don’t get fixated on working at one company, says Eric Knott, a business professor at Arizona State and a three-term president of SHRM’s Greater Phoenix chapter. However, if an opportunity comes up in a non-HR role at a dream firm, job seekers may want to accept it to get a foot in the door. After a year, Knott recommends, “bring up that you want to work in HR, and if you’re good, they’ll help make it happen.”
He also advises students to keep networking on various platforms, including LinkedIn. “Students need to reach out to those they find on LinkedIn,” he says. “They can post articles and commentary. They need to stay active on the site, join groups and be seen,” even if it’s only virtually.
‘You have to acknowledge to these candidates that what’s going on exists, even if you can’t change anything.’
Recent college grad Eddie Strom advises students to talk to lots of HR professionals and attend as many in-person and virtual events as possible. He became interested in outsourced HR after hearing about it at a student luncheon, and now he’s an HR coordinator at Mammoth HR in Portland, Ore.
“You might think, ‘They won’t want to talk to me, a student,’ ” says Strom, who was active in HR groups while in college. “But they do. And you benefit from it. You have to network. It might seem daunting at first, but it’s not as bad as you think.”
Many students use Handshake, a free online recruiting platform created by students to provide broader access to job postings. The platform, used at more than 1,000 colleges and universities across the country and in the United Kingdom, offers search functions that enable users to view positions that allow remote workers.
Employers Should Stay Active
From the employer perspective, maintaining a recruiting presence even in a down economy pays off in the long term, experts say.
“You’re not just hiring for the moment,” Dalzell says. “If you let up, two or three years later when you look for associates who are at a certain experience or skill level, you’ll find they’re missing because you paused hiring years back. Skipping hiring cycles will come back to burn you.”
At Shell Oil during the Great Recession, he recalls, “we had invested significant time and money to recruit the best candidates from highly competitive schools. And apart from the immediate impact on the recruits, the impact to our reputation on campuses from which we had recruited for many years—and would need to again once our industry recovered—was significant. Word travels fast down the alumni pipeline, and the faculty and placement staff have even longer memories.
“Students might move on from it and have successful careers,” Dalzell continues, “but the people who are running the job fairs at colleges and universities don’t move on. They remember. I’ve heard of times when an employer rescinded job offers to a school’s students one year, and then the next year tried to recruit from that school without success. Other companies were given preference in terms of registering for interview slots.”
Delivering the News
It’s not unusual for recent graduates to have job offers or internships rescinded in this climate. But experts say the news should be delivered via a personal phone call and with as much empathy as possible. It’s not only considerate, it’s also good business practice. Firms may want to hire these individuals down the road and certainly don’t want to tarnish their employer brand.
“These are separation-of-employment conversations with young adults who often were granted these jobs as far back as their junior year in college,” Knott says. “You’re taking away part of their identity. It hurts. You need to assure them that this is not a misstep by them. It’s for economic reasons.”
He adds that delivering the news as kindly and professionally as possible will deter people from blasting the company on employer review sites.
“You have to acknowledge to these candidates that what’s going on exists, even if you can’t change anything,” says Sheila Moss, president of SHRM’s Northern Arkansas Human Resources Association chapter. “They need to hear from you. When things do turn around, you hope to place these candidates who are on hold at the front of the line.”
Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.