College Students Studying HR Learn from Pandemic

By Cheryl L. Serra May 22, 2020
college student preparing for exam

​College students studying human resource management can look beyond their curriculums for a case study in preparedness and resilience among the many organizations trying to get back to business during the coronavirus. Some of the key concepts emerging from the pandemic are the need to assess, adapt, innovate, listen, communicate, engage and put people first.

"COVID-19 has impacted us more than anything else in that every single function of HR has been impacted by this," said Jeff Walls, senior faculty member in the College of Business at Indiana Institute of Technology and founding advisor to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) student chapter there.

Training, recruiting and meetings have shifted to videoconferencing platforms, such as Zoom and Webex. Then hackers attacked Zoom users during their virtual meetings, and other abuses occurred, highlighting the need for procedures to address these incidents.

Now, as shuttered businesses begin to reopen, workers will likely see a significant change in safety and health protocol. "This isn't a matter of somebody else coming in to sanitize your chair or your desk," Walls said. "It's going to have to flip to this idea that everybody's responsible for health, everybody's responsible for safety, just like everybody's responsible for security."

Employees who contract COVID-19 at work will likely be covered by workers' compensation rather than private insurance, he adds.

"In the HR world, [the pandemic has] shaken everything that we do," Walls said.

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19

An Unexpected Education

When COVID-19 was making its deadly inroad in the U.S., students in Julia Fullick-Jagiela's employee-relations class got a new assignment: to come up with a plan and action for addressing COVID-19 with employees, and to include plans on how to engage employees working at home and managing telecommuting. Fullick-Jagiela is associate professor and chair of management at Quinnipiac University and SHRM@QU advisor.

Walls agreed that teaching about employee assistance programs is a classic part of HR education that became even more relevant in this time, when students' mental and physical health is being tested. HR educators agree that addressing students' anxiety about the coronavirus is important. One way to do that is to help them assess situations and ferret out opportunities.

Students facing graduation are fearful of a labor market in chaos, Walls said. But he points out that there are jobs available, and while they may not be in students' chosen fields, they pay well and provide the opportunity to acquire new skills and grow with a company. He cites jobs at Amazon's distribution centers or at General Motors, which is now making ventilators. Graduates could earn a wage, expand their network and make their resumes stand out by highlighting summer jobs that help curb the pandemic.

Carly J. Wainright graduates this year with a degree from Quinnipiac in management and a concentration in human resource management. She's learned firsthand about the impact of the pandemic: She was furloughed from her paid internship at a manufacturing facility. She had a feeling it was coming as she saw the havoc COVID-19 was causing, but she's adapting, looking for jobs outside HR for now and taking part-time work to pay the bills.

Future Implications

Debbie Mackey has taught in human resources and recruited for the University of Tennessee for 20 years. She's been affiliated with SHRM nearly her entire career and was the 2014 National SHRM Advisor of the Year.

Like other HR educators, Mackey straddles two worlds, education and business, both of which are innovating on the fly. She talks to employers about what's going on in the workplace and sharing her findings in the classroom. 

"The unknown is frightening to anyone," Mackey said. "[Employers] know that the most important thing is to communicate changes and what's expected of [employees]. If employees come back to work, do they wear a mask? Do they have their temperature checked? What does the new workplace look like?"

Quinnipiac's Fullick-Jagiela said her students find comfort in the regular Zoom meetings they have. Students were "completely blown away," she said, when guest speakers told them they'd been meeting virtually for quite some time. "Students who have reflected on their learning have said, 'As difficult as it was, we got great training on how to be an effective virtual employee.' "

As an industrial organizational psychologist, Fullick-Jagiela practices what she preaches about focusing on people in HR: The first five minutes of her class is a check-in to gauge students' stress and how they're feeling.

She says building trust between employers and employees—particularly around telecommuting issues—being people-centric and transparent, providing needed tools for success, and communicating clear expectations of outcomes are cornerstones of the kind of leadership that is important during this uncertain time.

Learning isn't confined to students.

Like many educators, Indiana Institute of Technology's Walls has been holding classes online. Recently he was preparing to teach his class when his home Internet went down. He assessed his options, jumped in his car and pulled into the college parking lot, where he accessed the school's Internet and taught his class.

"In the business world, we wouldn't just say, 'Yeah, we can't do any business today,' " he said. Workers will face challenges and have to quickly problem-solve, like he did.

Mackey at the University of Tennessee plans to update her graduate course on compensation, particularly in the areas of equal employment opportunity law, the changing work landscape, recent legislation, and employee mental and physical health.

Cheryl L. Serra is a freelance writer in Southport, N.C.


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