Navigating early careers in a COVID-19 World

October 15, 2020
by
James Goh

2020 is proving to be a highly challenging year for individuals who are in their early career. Recently, I had the opportunity to engage with university students as a mentor on the subject of jobs and employment in Singapore.

This became an insightful conversation for me as our exchange brought about the realisation that many of these graduates misunderstand what it means to build a career, and to a large extent, they don’t know what they can do to achieve their career aspirations.

Therefore, I am writing this post, sharing some perspectives with the hope of shedding some light on decisions individuals can make to navigate their careers, particularly amidst this difficult period in time. 

 

Get prepared for future opportunities

 

When faced with a sudden crisis such as COVID-19, it is normal for the daunting odds of a job search to make an individual feel helpless, like they have been unexpectedly dealt a bad hand. This sentiment was clearly reflected in the conversations that I had with these graduates, and is clearly visible in my online professional networks.

 

However, if you ask anyone with more than 15-20 years of working experience, you will understand that overcoming challenges is part and parcel of career growth.

Instead of submitting to the victim mindset, I encourage graduates to view this situation as an early, yet somehow necessary challenge in their careers. This moment will enable graduates to develop strategies to cope with these difficult times that will set them up for future. 

 

Focusing on skills

One strategy for a graduate to take so they can shift their mindset to see the opportunity of this moment would be to focus on defining and building the skills needed to build towards future career goals, instead of the job in hand right now.

Many of the young graduates I spoke to often think that a career is just simply the procession of jobs they do, and they still have a view that careers are linear and build logically. They believe that by not having the ‘right’ job at the start of their careers, that it derails their entire career pathway.

Yet, being in the world of HR has taught me that hiring managers are starting to focus much less on the jobs and linear title progression that candidates have had, and more on the skills, knowledge and attributes they have built in relation to the capabilities needed for a role.

It is these skills that will help form the foundation for a lifelong career, and sometimes career titles, industry and responsibilities take unexpected pathways.

Therefore, in times like this, professionals need to learn to be agile, and think of non-conventional ways to stay gritted and resilient, while continually building practical skills outside of jobs.

There are many options that help a professional gain new skills while looking for a new job, such as courses, workshops, internships or traineeships. The question is... are graduates willing to take this broad view approach rather than expecting to get a ‘bullseye’ career hit with their first job? It takes maturity to see your career as a bag of capabilities, network and mindsets, rather than simply titles and brands.

 

Build a blended portfolio

Graduates can also consider building skills through a blended portfolio approach. In today’s world, where the gig economy is becoming increasingly prominent, it is entirely possible for graduates to develop a multi-faceted portfolio, combining different gigs to acquire the skills needed to grow into their dream career.

For example, a previous colleague of mine first started her career as a freelance copywriter, photographer as well as a website designer.

This paved her career path, and eventually secured her a full time role in a multi-national company as a marketing professional.

If she’d only focused on getting a full-time marketing job, should would have wasted time where she could have otherwise been building the component skills that eventually lead her into her career path. It is important that in this time of crisis, that we continually stay open to options, and do not further limit our possibilities.

Graduates don’t seem to think of this pathway, despite being the ‘gig’ generation, they’re expecting traditional full time work – certainly this work gives more security, however in the current economy it reduces their options to simply get out into the market and start building skills and knowledge.


Create profile exposure

 

One other grievance that I often hear from graduates during this period is the fact that the reduced travel, and decreased face to face interactions brought about by COVID-19 denies them of the exposure they need to grow in their careers.

For example, a recent graduate I spoke to pointed out to me that she was originally excited for her new job, as it allows for her to be sent on a one year attachment to Europe, providing her an experience to be based out of a foreign location.

However, COVID-19 came, and to her disappointment, her assignment had to be cancelled. This is no-doubt disappointing.

From my point of view, while I do agree that many of these conventional management rotation methods of gaining knowledge and business exposure become much more limited, the crisis also open up valuable experiences for graduates to increase their exposure in other ways. 

 

The opening up of global digital networking

 

If there is one most important skill to learn while building a career, that would be networking.

No matter which industry you are in, or what job you do, it is highly essential for individuals to build their network constantly throughout their career.

While today’s COVID-19 climate reduced opportunities for many face to face meetings, it has opened doors to opportunities to network with people from all around the world online.

Prior to this, we would rarely get the opportunity to meet international speakers based overseas, unless we travel to conferences or training to meet these people physically.

However, COVID-19 popularized the use of video conferencing for genuine social interactions, creating unprecedented abilities for us to engage people thousands of miles away in dialogue and networking. Graduates can actively look to participate in these sessions - equipping themselves with valuable networks and knowledge that might one day prove to be extremely important.

That being said, it is important for graduates to be proactive, and motivate themselves so as to make full use of the opportunities in front of them – just because networking is digital now, doesn’t mean we can be ‘comfortable’ in our own homes while we’re doing it.

Graduates still need to come with a thoughtful agenda, ask good questions, and look for opportunities for follow up. This takes effort.

  

Overcoming national borders by becoming globalized citizens

 

With the world’s international travel going into a lockdown, many young people with dreams to work and stay abroad from their home countries are finding it difficult to do so. In many places, graduates are finding it difficult to secure work visas, and in many cases are finding the hurdle too great.

The supply of domestic graduates often means foreign students are returning to their home countries after coursework finishes, which dashes many dreams of working overseas. In these situations, while a person’s place of work might not be within their control, individuals can still actively seek skills to become global citizens.

For example, Singapore recently announced a series of programmes for young people to gain exposure to Asia, the Commonwealth, and the UN. These programmes provide the participants with training in skills such as inter-cultural understanding and cross-border networking.

Furthermore, experts are invited to share insights into regional trends in different parts of the world. By taking advantage of such programmes, one can prepare themselves for the globalised world, in the comfort of their homes, while waiting for international travel to be restored around the world.

In most situations, my advice to the graduate is that it’s more important to have employment in their chosen field and build skills and experience, as opposed to waiting around in a country where they might not get a visa, missing out on the valuable time when they could be working.

Plans and goals change, and while many graduates wish to take international moves, it’s important to be realistic, and go to the market where your skills are most marketable, and where your employer doesn’t have to overcome too many obsticles to hire you.

With great experience, international opportunities will always come your way down the track. 

Considering alternatives to starting jobs


The more adventurous graduates are considering potential alternative pathways to take rather than seeking full time jobs at this time. Some of the advice I gave happens to be one of the first career advice I had been given when I was starting my career. 

I told them that the path to success is never a straight line.

Till today, this holds true, and I have been recalibrating my career path each time I decide to make a career move. Therefore, they need to learn to take their career a step at a time, and evaluate these alternatives based on what makes sense as a next step for their career.

In this crisis, what I am seeing is that graduates are indirectly leaning towards two particular alternatives to jobs, namely 1) to continue their education in graduate school, or 2) to start their own line of business as entrepreneurs.

Continuing education in graduate school

 

For some undergraduates, this might seem like the most sensible approach. By continuing into post-graduate school during this time, the individual can “sit out” the COVID-19 storm as far as the job market is concerned, and simply avoid the risk of not being able to find a job.

While this sounds like an ideal option (for those who can afford it), I would advise all graduates to think through the following considerations before making a decision. 

 

First, does the graduate school makes sense for you at this point in your career? There are fields that makes perfect sense for graduates to pursue a graduate degree right after graduation (eg. psychology, biomedical sciences), as a graduate degree allows for them to specialize and perform better in their roles.

However, the contrary exist as well (eg. MBAs, Masters in Organizational Leadership), and graduates might find the skills they learn to be not applicable until a later part of their career when they have more experience to put the knowledge from the degree into practice and context. In these cases, people might find themselves entering the workforce overqualified in education, yet drastically behind their peers in terms of experience, as these people who started working straight after graduation. 

 

Second, is the subject you study something you are truly passionate about? In my years in graduate school, I can honestly say that it was one of the toughest, most exhausting periods of my life. What kept me engaged through it all was the interest I had in the subject, and willingness to learn more about the topic that kept me going.

Each year, I see more and more of my peers drop out of these programmes just because they did not consider their interest carefully prior to signing up.

It’s an easy mistake to avoid. These people found themselves in a position where they wasted valuable years in graduate school, when in fact they could have used the time to build work experience.

Thus, it is of utmost importance that one must be sure that a degree is of interest, and of value to them before committing to graduate school.  

 

Finally – will degrees be as important in the future of work? Right now, degrees are prestigious on a resume, because we know how much hard work goes in to getting them.

But as companies reconsider what ‘great’ looks like for their talent, degrees are becoming less recognized for the skills and knowledge they impart, because individuals can now get that knowledge elsewhere.

I recommend the graduate should think about their chosen post-grad degree, and consider whether the cost (time and money) is going to be worth the outcome (employment) in future.

They don’t want to get 2-6 years down the track and feel bitterly disappointed if they could simply have some conversations in the market and think more creatively about study to achieve their goals in a different way.

 

Starting a business

 

A second potential option graduates might turn to during times where jobs are scarce, is to choose to start their own business.

While it is indeed a good time for entrepreneurship, as innovation is highly celebrated, and start-ups are popping up everywhere around the world, individuals who have walked down this path will agree that it’s always easier to have a job than to run your own business.

A friend of mine, who founded a highly successful social enterprise in Myanmar once told me, “The internet makes the flow of information instant in today’s world, and one week is all it takes for a great idea to be taken up by another competitor”.

As such, entrepreneurs need to have the grit to be able to take fast actions, and constantly stay ahead of the curve to become successful at what they do.

Furthermore, nothing is a given while running your own business, and it is necessary to for one to be adaptable and resourceful, moving from a finance role one day, to a sales and marketing role the next day.

All in all, it is important for an aspiring entrepreneur prior to choosing this path, to ask themselves if they have the attitude, the skillset, and willingness to follow through the journey required to build a successful business. 

Conclusion

 

In conclusion, while COVID-19 has indeed struck a heavy blow on the job market, and shifted the various opportunities that were previously available to graduates, what matters for people in their early careers today is the need to stay agile and resilient.

My suggestion is: Be on the constant lookout for where new opportunities arise, and always be ready to jump onboard and learn what you can in order to give yourself a competitive advantage. 

The time of the COVID-19 pandemic will pass, but it is in our hands to decide if we emerge from the other end, weaker than before, or stronger than ever. 


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