By December 2020, Jessica Colombi was exhausted.
Another semester at Cleveland State was winding down for the executive director of the university’s career services office. Her team’s calendars were packed with more virtual office hours and weekly events with employers. Some staff had Google phone numbers, allowing students to text or call them directly.
“We really had turned ourselves inside out to make sure we were just absolutely, completely available to students,” she said. “But it was almost too much.”
College career services professionals like Colombi tend to be a pretty positive bunch. But even the biggest optimists face challenges when it comes to advising graduating students amid the economic crunch and emotional toll the pandemic continues to level.
Last spring, job postings for those with bachelor’s degrees fell a reported 40% nationwide between March and May. Entry-level jobs for that group took the biggest hit.
Roughly five weeks into the new year, Colombi said she’s encouraged by an uptick of job postings. The feeling does fade, though, when she shifts through scammers trying to submit postings to the school’s job board or when news about local layoffs emerges. Like many public urban institutions across the country, Cleveland State and the economy of the city in its name are intertwined. The university reports 80% of its graduates live within the area.
And that group faces extra competition for open positions this year. Recent figures report 315,000 Ohioians were unemployed in December. Colombi frequently reminds students that employers aren’t just looking at them, either. They’re also considering graduating students at Youngstown State, Kent State and the rest of Ohio’s higher education institutions.
“All the more reason that we really hope to goodness that they come and work with us, that they hone that elevator pitch, that they show up for these events, meet employers, take advantage of all the opportunities that we have for them and keep at it,” Colombi said.
A Long Game
This semester, Colombi’s conversations center on encouraging students to focus on the present. Remote internships and jobs, which she previously looked at skeptically, are a realistic option now. There’s more dialogue on how to prepare for video chats. Mock interviews and resume workshops are done via Zoom.
“We absolutely talk to students about how this might not be the moment for your dream job,” she said.
Four in 10 recent college graduates reported being underemployed in their first position even before the pandemic. That first job is important, according to findings from labor market analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies. The findings showed there is a higher chance to remain locked into the cycle of underemployment for up to a decade in the majority of fields for employees who start out that way.
In Cleveland, Colombi is reminding students to focus on the long game, especially when it comes to some of the area’s powerhouse employers.
“UH (University Hospitals) or the Cleveland Clinic are hiring a lot of positions right now to do lab testing,” she said. “It might not be your dream job, but it is a foot in the door to an institution where they’ll develop you as a professional and there’s room to grow.”
But the first step to having those conversations is actually finding the students. It’s more work now. Gone are the moments of catching a student as they walked across campus, or squeezing into an elevator together to chat about a potential job or internship.
“We’ve just got to be in touch with them to help them understand the power of their own story and that they have a network,” she said. “It’s not just about your major, it’s also about your interests, your skills and your value system.”
A beefed-up social media presence features testimonials from students who have utilized the career services office. The hope is to entice their peers.
“I genuinely, really appreciate all the help career services gave me in this endeavor,” read part of a note from a student announcing a new job six weeks ago. “I really doubt I would have gotten the position without it.”
There also are targeted email blasts, weekend chat hours and leveraging internal relationships with other on-campus departments to find more people to connect with and advise. Despite the best efforts of Colombi’s team, some of the university’s 12,000 full-time students may still prove to be unreachable.
“What I’m nervous about is the students that fall through the cracks, because we can’t find them and they don’t come seek us out,” she said.
About 55% of CSU’s students are women, and nearly one-third are people of color — groups disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Colombi said chunks of the appointments that do materialize are spent coaching students on how not to “freak out” about a lack of internet access or a computer that doesn’t consistently work.
“Our students are the first generation in their family to go to college,” she said. “They’re nontraditional students, they’re working other jobs, they’re taking care of family members. And the pandemic really just has been one extra thing.”
She said they remain resilient, though, and her staff encourages them to remain flexible. That includes stretching their definition of networking. It’s been a big focus of the department, replacing the mainstays of in-person events with recommendations that students make connections on LinkedIn or join professional associations.
Eighty students attended a recent free webinar on the topic, resulting in 80 more emails staffers could add to their distribution lists. Two wins in one as the journey of the career services department and job-seeking students continues.
Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.