For students navigating the shift from school and college to university, working life can feel light years away – and it’s tempting to put all thoughts of jobs and a career to one side.
A survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute this year found current students to be more worried than excited about the prospect of their future careers. When asked how they felt about joining the labour market, undergraduates reported feeling “anxious” (28%), “uncertain” (16%) and “overwhelmed” (16%). A third said the coronavirus pandemic had exacerbated those feelings.
According to Michele Trusolino, CEO and cofounder of Debut Careers, it is never too soon for students to begin planning their careers – pandemic or no pandemic. “The earlier you start, the better the end result will be,” she says. “Students who get placements or internships in their first or second year are much more likely to get offered a role by employers come graduation.”
Research by the company suggests more than half of students are unsure how they want to earn a living after uni. Trusolino recommends trying out different industries. “Many have a real problem with recruitment because students – whose skills they desperately need – are not considering them as an obvious choice.”
This year’s graduate cohort will face additional challenges in the wake of Covid-19, however, and competition for internships is likely to be high. Following the 2008 economic crash, Debut Careers experienced a backlog of applicants, which led Trusolino to predict a tough graduate market “for the next two or three years”. But new students shouldn’t worry, she adds, as taking a gap year can be a good option – especially if the time is used to build transferable skills.
According to Helen Smith, head of careers at the University of Sheffield, students have plenty of reasons to feel confident despite the current circumstances. “Definitely keep applying for internships and jobs as there are still opportunities available,” she urges. Students shouldn’t underestimate how much employers need them at this time, too. “The value students and graduates can add to the workplace is so important, especially the potential they can bring in terms of new thinking and enquiring minds,” she adds.
A growing number of institutions and companies offer digital alternatives. For two years, Aston Business School has run a virtual internship programme for postgraduate students who cannot travel, whether for financial, health, family or cultural reasons. Due to the pandemic, funded placements are up from 20 to 70.
According to Elsa Zenatti-Daniels, international and student development lead at Aston Business School, interest in the scheme has “skyrocketed” in recent weeks. “Employers will be looking for people who have got that capacity to make connections, disseminate ideas and communicate clearly even across a digital platform. These competencies are going to be extremely useful in the post-Covid-19 world,” she adds.