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WATCH NOW: Job outlook for new college graduates has improved, but perseverance is required
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WATCH NOW: Job outlook for new college graduates has improved, but perseverance is required

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Joseph L. Lyons, executive director for student engagement and career services at VSU, on the job outlook for this year's college graduates

University of Virginia senior Gabby Forward searched for several months, but she was finally able to get a job in her preferred career path this spring despite all the economic disruptions and other challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I applied to a lot of different jobs,” Forward said. “Most of them never got back to me, and some of them said that they could not accept my application because they had already found someone or I was not qualified enough.”

Forward, a media studies major from Harrisonburg, will start work soon as an analyst for a New York company managing social media platforms for pharmaceutical brands.

“I wanted specifically to do something in health care, so the job is perfect,” she said.

The job market for the college Class of 2021 is looking better than it did for last year’s graduates, who searched for work during the height of the pandemic.

One key survey of hiring plans conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers in March showed the employers expect to hire about 7.2% more new college graduates from the Class of 2021 than they hired from last year’s graduates.

That’s a sharp increase from fall 2020, when employers expected to reduce college hiring slightly, the organization reported. In contrast, the job market for graduates in 2019 was the strongest the organization had ever seen.

During the pandemic, “employers have been cautious when it comes to committing to hiring,” said Ed Koc, director of research for the National Association of Colleges and Employers. “Back in August and September [2020], when we did our first job survey, we were looking at flat or a little bit of a decline. Things improved after January” as COVID-19 vaccines rolled out.

Now, employers are “looking optimistic” about recruiting new college grads especially into the 2022 class, he said. “The market is looking up for college students, but it will take a bit to recover from what we encountered last year.”

Graduates are still facing some hurdles in landing their preferred job or even furthering their education. Among those are the challenges that social distancing have imposed, along with a rapid shift to online interactions and impersonal technology.

At a time when an increasing number of job applications are submitted and sifted online, Forward said she was able to land her job the old-fashioned way — through networking and a referral by someone she knows at the company that hired her.

“I think that is probably the main reason I got the job, because I was not applying through [online] platforms,” she said.

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An internship proved to be the pathway to full-time work for Lucinda K. Conteh, a Virginia State University senior and business management major who will be starting remotely in July as a business analyst for a bank. VSU’s graduation is May 23.

“It is something where you have to start early, and it is a long process,” Conteh said of the path new grads like her have taken to getting their preferred job.

A New Jersey native, Conteh said she started by applying for an internship more than a year ago. “I did not get the position at first, but then a position opened up and they called me and asked me if I was still interested.”

The internship last year helped her get the experience and connections that ultimately led to the job offer.

“I’m definitely grateful. It’s not something that is happening for everyone in the world now,” she said.

Sadie Pruett, a senior at Washington and Lee University who is from Wytheville, has found herself in the job hunt this spring after her initial plans to apply for and attend law school starting this fall got stymied by a series of technological glitches.

Twice last year — once in June and once in October — Pruett tried to take the key standardized test for law school admissions, the LSAT.

Because of the pandemic, she had to take it online rather than in person. Both times, the test crashed for her midway through, and her results could not be saved.

The next makeup date for her would be in January.

“That would mean my law school applications would not go out until February,” she said. “It is one reason why I switched from going to grad school” to looking for a job.

It means Pruett also entered the job hunt later than most seniors. Now, she is looking to take a “gap year” or two in her education to get work experience, and she is putting a positive spin on that.

“I certainly think I could use a break from school,” said Pruett, an American politics and philosophy major. “I definitely do want to work. Last summer, I was not able to do that because of the pandemic, and that is something I have been doing since I was 16.”

Koc, the analyst from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, said companies surveyed by the organization expect to adopt a “hybrid” model between working remotely and working in person.

“I think businesses are still trying to work out exactly what the future is going to be on that,” he said.

Forward, who is graduating from UVA on Saturday, will start her new job working remotely, but she plans to move as soon as she can to work in person.

“They offered the option to work remotely [indefinitely], but I declined it because I felt like it would be sort of alienating to start my first job remotely,” she said.

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Career services professionals at local universities say there has been an overall warming in the job market from the near-freeze seen last year at this time.

Most say they will be collecting data for several months to come on just how many of the Class of 2021 get jobs this year.

“We are seeing this huge influx of both internships and full-time jobs being posted since really March and April,” said Katybeth Lee, director of business career services at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I think a lot of it has to do with the vaccines being much more readily available. Companies who were holding off are now looking to staff up.”

In fact, Lee said, the number of job openings for new grads is now outrunning the number of students applying.

“A lot of students are under the impression that the landscape is bleak, when in fact there are opportunities out there,” she said.

Jobs in the hospitality and tourism sector remain sparse because that industry has struggled so much, but such fields as accounting and marketing are seeing an uptick, Lee said.

“The biggest complaint we have had is on the employer side — that they can’t find the applicants they want,” she said.

One specialty within the business school — supply chain management and logistics — is practically guaranteed to get a graduate a job right now, she said.

“It is one of the majors that has a huge need, and the pandemic has underscored that even more,” Lee said.

Joseph Lyons, executive director for student engagement and career services at VSU, said he has seen a rebound in job offers this year, particularly in science, technology and engineering fields and in customer service-related jobs.

This year, students have had to apply more time and skills making professional connections through various channels, Lyons said.

“Things are looking up, but we are still helping our students try to adapt and be competitive, in terms in trying to market themselves,” he said.

“I think one of the things [students] often do is apply for positions online, but the opportunity to know someone who knows someone is of more value,” Lyons said.

“One thing that is important as we talk to recruiters, is now employers are looking for work ethic, critical thinking skills, team building skills and communications skills,” he said. “Really, employers are looking for students capitalizing on those skills regardless of your major. They are transferable skills.”

Job opportunities are looking pretty strong in such fields as information technology, cybersecurity and education, said Dontrese Brown, executive director of Randolph-Macon College’s Edge Career Center, which has been working to prepare students for the new virtual world of job searching by doing mock online interviews.

One thing employers will notice about the Class of 2021 is resiliency, given what students have overcome during more than a year of a pandemic, Brown said.

“What these employers are going to get are some really, really tested students that are coming into the workforce and can deal with difficult situations, make decisions quickly on their feet and be able to adjust,” he said.

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The pandemic’s disruption to college life took its toll on many students, and some are just looking to take a break and find a job to tide them over while they consider career options, said Jeremiah Brooks, senior class president at VSU.

“School was tough this year,” said Brooks, who is from Springfield. “I know a couple of students who are taking a break, and they might have a business or a job on the side. They are taking a break from what school was this year and just taking care of themselves.”

Others are looking to further their education.

“I know some that are going to graduate school,” said Brooks, adding that includes him. He said he is entering grad school at George Mason University with the goal of eventually earning a doctorate in public policy and founding his own firm to advance consumer protection policies and fight discriminatory practices.

David DeMarco is hoping a background in media, politics and data science will help provide him the transferable skills for a job.

DeMarco finished his course requirements a year early at the College of William & Mary and then worked last year as a campaign manager for a state representative near his home in Pennsylvania. He also designed a computer algorithm to help automate data analysis for smaller campaigns, and he has worked on a podcast.

Now back in the job market, DeMarco, a government major with a minor in data science, is planning to attend graduation with the rest of his class on Saturday and is considering his options. He wants to work in multimedia journalism.

“A lot of people are getting great jobs, but I do know people that are struggling and are taking other jobs that are not necessarily related to what they want to do,” DeMarco said. “A lot of people are considering just going to grad school — people who were not considering it before. There is more stability in continuing education right now, versus going out and trying to find an opportunity that might be a needle in a haystack.”

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