Careers services 2021: Connecting students with opportunities as Covid-19 persists

It is almost a year since South Africa began its Covid-journey and we were all pinching ourselves and asking, “Is this really happening in my lifetime?”   Denial is the first stage of grief and we have journeyed, albeit at different speeds, along the continuum that moves from denial to anger, to bargaining, possibly depression and, finally acceptance.  The timing of our vaccination programme looks to be a moving target and we must accept that most Covid restrictions will remain in place until at least the latter part of 2021. What is remarkable is the way in which, having reached acceptance, we have adapted, adjusted, invented, experimented, and found new paths around the obstacles Covid has presented.  We have learned a great deal!

So, what have we learned and how are we going to ensure that the 2021 cohort of graduates have the best possible opportunities to connect with employers and seek out meaningful employment opportunities?  I caught up with several of our careers services colleagues from NMU, Stellenbosch University, UCT, UKZN and Wits to find out how they will be approaching the next 12 months and what employers should expect.  The areas we explored are:

  • How are you planning to prepare students for their 2022 job search?
  • How will you connect students and employers during 2021?
  • In 2020, what worked and what did not work for students in terms of their engagement with employers?
  • How should employers be preparing for student engagement this year?
  • What do you anticipate in terms of the hopes and fears of your students this year?
  • In what ways can employers support your efforts to engage and encourage students?

Preparing students for their job search

Without exception, the careers services have worked towards hosting various online and virtual initiatives that will assist their students with job-search skills, handling virtual interviews, setting up profiles and using LinkedIn, practical tips and tools for CV writing and design, acing AI assessments and personal branding.  Most are offering a combination of interactive webinars, as well as recordings which students can access in their own time.  Where possible, graduate recruitment handbooks are being produced and shared electronically and use is being made of job portals and social media to advertise and market employer opportunities. 

In the absence of in-person contact, careers services will continue to pursue online solutions to facilitate preparation and they are hopeful, given the adjustment period students have now had, that the uptake of their online offerings will increase compared to 2020.  Additional ideas being explored are as follows:

  1. UCT are growing their resources and support in promoting entrepreneurship among their students.
  2. Stellenbosch University will be launching an accredited professional module in collaboration with the SU Consulting Society.
  3. NMU are looking at engaging their alumni to produce short, snappy talks about their experience in industry and are also going to approach students who were successful in securing jobs last year to tell their story using a video format.

Connecting students with employers in 2021

Interaction between students and employers is top of mind for all our careers service colleagues and they are endeavouring to do everything in their power to facilitate meaningful engagement, despite the many restrictions.  Virtual Career Fairs are going to be the order of the day in 2021 – with some Universities hosting their own virtual fairs, many planning to participate in SAGEA’s VirtualGradExpo 2021, or a combination of both.

Careers services will also continue to offer employer presentations, albeit in a virtual format as well as opportunities to advertise on their portals/student databases and to arrange email campaigns to targeted students.  Promoting opportunities and events via each of the careers services’ social media platforms is possible at most Universities and employer participation in events such as mock interviews and cv preparation webinars is strongly encouraged.

UCT has created a Career Conversation Series that affords students the opportunity to engage with graduates who return to share their professional journeys in a light and helpful way – the conversation format allows students to ask questions and gain meaningful insights. Stellenbosch University has created what they call “Career Khuluma’s” in which employers can participate, covering topics requested by students.  Examples of topics covered are what to do in instances where a student receives more than one job offer; how to navigate an employment contract and how to address a conversation around salary and earnings.

Lessons learned in 2020 and getting things right in 2021

A common theme addressed by all careers services was around student access to data and technology as well as sensitivity around the timing of interventions.  In some cases, careers services themselves were not adequately set up to work from home and in more cases, there was a great deal of work to be done in providing students with the tools they would need to engage with online learning.  Much has been achieved in 2020 and our HEI’s are in a much stronger position to continue with online learning and processes in 2021.

Some of the key lessons highlighted were as follows:

  • We must remain mindful of students’ data needs and employers should consider the data-usage of apps and platforms they plan to use to connect with students.  Work together with Careers Service at each of your target Institutions to understand potential constraints and ensure the best outcomes.
  • Load shedding and network coverage need to be assessed and worked around.
  • Online interactions do provide a great deal of flexibility for both students and employers – however, we all need to be wary of “zoom fatigue” and ensure that the timing of virtual fairs, webinars, online assessments, and virtual interviews does not interfere with academic priorities or much-needed down time.
  • Increased flexibility means that students are sometimes looking for information and advice at unusual hours!  The UCT careers service have extended the availability of their online advisory services to accommodate this.
  • Wellbeing and mental health concerns are very real among our student population and have been exacerbated by Covid.  The availability of resources to provide the necessary support for students varies from one Institution to another and this is also an area requiring sensitivity from employers who are engaging with students.
  • Mock Interview and CV preparation workshops where students can gain practice with instant feedback from employers have been extremely well received – and in some cases oversubscribed by students.  The more employers can get involved with these initiatives the better!

How employers should prepare for student engagement

The message here, was loud and clear – it is always best for employers to work in partnership with our careers service colleagues, to inform them of planned strategies, goals, and what assistance they require whilst remaining cognisant of resource constraints.  Being aware of academic calendars and checking dates and timing with careers services is a must! 

Allowing time for careers services to get the word out on employer’s behalf will improve the attendance and success of events – employers must factor this into their planning.

Remain visible to students, repurpose content for digital and virtual media and using unique marketing material that showcases employer brand identity will help employers to stand out.  Going the extra mile to get involved in initiatives that support students (e.g., mock interviews and providing psychosocial support), will also help to build your brand.

It is also important for employers to provide careers services with feedback following interactions with their students – what was student participation like, how many applications did you receive and what was the quality like, etc?

The hopes and fears of students

There is a natural concern among careers services and their students that the number of graduate opportunities will decline because of Covid and that work opportunities will be harder to secure.  There are also fears of a potential third wave, with continued limited social interaction.  Failing courses due to difficulties with online learning and/or being able to access the resources to learn online are very real.  In addition, many students are questioning whether they are acquiring the necessary knowledge and skills to prepare them for the 4IR and if they are adequately prepared for the world of work.

In terms of giving students hope, we should be emphasising the opportunities we are able to offer – postgraduate and entrepreneurial pathways can also be encouraged.  There is a real opportunity for some virtual processes, such as virtual work experience programmes, to be scaled – we all know that any form of work experience or exposure will make our graduates more work-ready and employable.

Employer support

The willingness of employers to host virtual events, discussions, and workshops with students and to work in partnership with careers services to make opportunities available to students is incredibly valuable.  Making data available to students (where there is a need) and being prepared to sponsor careers service initiatives is highly appreciated while times are tough.  Employer feedback of insights and experiences with students helps careers services to adapt their service offerings and inviting careers service staff to attend webinars with students, where content might be relevant, will go a long way to lifting both skills and spirits.

To sum up, then, we are in for another virtual ride in 2021 and given the lessons learned in the last 9-12 months we can only get better at how we approach graduate recruitment in our new world.  Careers services as well as students have had time to adapt and adjust – digital communication and processes should run more smoothly, and it is hoped that student uptake of careers services’ offerings will be greater.  Partnering with careers services at your target institutions will go a long way to ensuring that employer endeavours to recruit graduates will be successful.  In the next few weeks, we will be working with careers services to put together a matrix of the current services available at each of our HEI’s – watch this space!