Every year, hundreds of thousands of Canadian students graduate from university and enter the workforce. While that transition is usually marred by uncertainty and stress, the last two years have undoubtedly increased the post-graduate job market’s unpredictability.
“I think it’s definitely a lot more competitive in the job landscape than it was,” said Shaan Ganapathy, a U3 Finance student who is currently seeking work for next year. “Number one, there’s a notable increase in applicants. I feel like a lot of people who were displaced because of the pandemic are going back into the market. All of those factors don’t really make it easy to find entry-level positions. It’s just more competitive in general.”
Marie-José Beaudin, the Executive Director of the Desautels Soutar Career Center, says she heard from students that the pandemic was causing excess anxiety and apprehension about the job options available to them when they graduate. These concerns were based on truth. A recent article in The Atlantic stated that entry-level job and internship postings in the U.S. decreased by about 70 percent on recruitment sites like Ziprecruiter between the months of March and May 2020.
“I think students felt ‘The rug has been pulled [out from] under my feet’,” said Beaudin. “From a student perspective I think they felt that there was no opportunity. That’s not true — recruiters just needed to change how they would interview and onboard.”
Now, almost two years into the pandemic, Beaudin believes that companies and students have adjusted to the online job application process. Data from the Desautels Faculty of Management, provided by Beaudin, shows that there was actually an increase in job postings for Management students: from 2,394 postings during the 2019-2020 school year to 3,308 postings in 2020-2021.
It is worth noting that the pandemic transition may be easier for some vocations and majors than others. Lara Franko, career advisor to education and kinesiology students, observed that kinesiology students “have been having a hard time getting hands-on experience due to COVID-19; clinics and fitness centers don’t need all hands on deck and aren’t looking to hire part-timers.”
Franko suggests that for students struggling with finding a job in a specific field, it could be useful to broaden the scope of their search.
“If students come to me with a narrow mindset, it helps to think more broadly for some related field to get their foot in the door; [that job] could, a couple years down the line, lead to that job they’re looking for,” Franko said. “There are hundreds of different types of jobs and not all of them are cookie-cutter solutions for someone graduating with a degree in biology. You have to leverage and use your skillset to apply to a broader range of jobs.”
Ganapathy has been seeking job opportunities in a variety of finance fields and spoke about how some programs offer more postgrad flexibility than others. “I’m just looking for some kind of experience,” he explains. “Finance is an area of study that is very open. There’s not really a niche kind of field you need to get into straight out of graduation. There are many different avenues to get into it, and then slowly make your way around into what you are truly interested in.”
“There are hundreds of different types of jobs and not all of them are cookie-cutter solutions for someone graduating with a degree in biology.”
Franko would agree with Ganapathy’s job application strategy, pointing out that it takes students five to ten years to feel established in their career trajectory and advising that students maintain an open mindset about their first job as a university graduate.
But this is not as easy in practice: Ganapathy has observed “everyone kind of goes into the job search with the mindset of ‘I’ve been doing this for four years, so I’ve got to find something in my field’.”
While that strategy might work for those who want to be doctors and lawyers, this straightforward career path is not as accessible for most students in non-vocational programs like the social sciences and humanities. Katherine Hudak, a U3 Art History student, has had to make adjustments in her job search to reflect the limited entry-level openings in certain industries, and she employed the flexible mindset mentioned by Franko and Ganapathy.
“The emotional side of job hunting is often overlooked, as it’s difficult to have to see so many rejections with no clear idea of when you’ll land the position you’re looking for, if you ever even will.”
“I was definitely looking for jobs related to my program, but I had to keep an open mind and recognize that that’s not something that you can always get right after graduation,” Hudak said. “Even working in a field not related to my program, you’re still going to be learning a lot of the same core skills that are applicable not only to art history, but any career, which will help land an arts-related position in the future.”
A recent BBC article explained that soft skills picked up in these types of non-vocational programs gear students to be open-minded and creative, and they don’t necessarily limit job opportunities.
“Realistically, for most entry-level full-time positions, you learn on the job,” stated Ganapathy. “Most of my graduated friends in full-time positions have gone through a training process of anywhere from three to nine months to get to terms with everything, learn on the job, et cetera. They really settle into their role a bit later on.”
Even with a flexible mindset, it can be taxing for students to be searching for work while they deal with other responsibilities, like school and part-time work, as well as the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
“It is very challenging to be applying to work at the same time as finishing my degree, because on top of the extra time and stress, it’s mentally taxing,” Hudak said. “The emotional side of job hunting is often overlooked, as it’s difficult to have to see so many rejections with no clear idea of when you’ll land the position you’re looking for, if you ever even will.”
Further, the transformation of the job market to an increasingly online process can take a toll, which adds to pre-existing screen fatigue. Beaudin believes the recent “decrease in student engagement … despite a lot of corporate demand” at the Soutar Career Center “can be attributed to Zoom fatigue.”
Many entry-level positions are posted on sites like Glassdoor and LinkedIn, requiring that students dedicate even more time to being hunched over their laptops. While online tools like the “Easy Apply” button on LinkedIn can make applying for jobs quicker and easier, it also leads to increased competition because hundreds will apply to the same position.
The transition of career services and the job application process to an online format has indeed posed major challenges, but it does have a silver lining. Catherine Stace, career advisor to the Max Bell School of Public Policy and the President of the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers (CACEE), says that “nationally, there has been an increase in student engagement, especially in virtual [career] workshops.”
Darlene Hnatchuk is the director of McGill CaPS, which provides career planning services across the university, from undergraduate to postdoctoral students; Hnatchuk said that CaPS has “seen a 250 per cent increase in attendance in career workshops and events” since March 2020, and, due to the increased accessibility of online career fairs, CaPS online programming has seen over 10 000 students.
“The forced experiment has prompted and enabled us,” Hnatchuk said. “Now we have the technology to make available asynchronous types of career development preparation.”
The pandemic forced companies and recruiters to restructure by adopting hybrid work models and basing the work week on overall productivity rather than hours clocked in. Remote work culture has exploded in the last 20 months as many corporate and office teams realized that they can work, maybe even more effectively, while at home. A recent analysis done by the Canadian Government suggested that approximately 40 percent of jobs can be performed remotely, which jumps to 85 percent when considering financial, professional, scientific, or technical services, as opposed to 10 percent for workers in accommodations and food services.
“At the end of the day, humans hire humans.”
This transition to alternative work arrangements and the open-mindedness that many companies are adopting in the face of pandemic challenges make room for optimism, says Stace. “I think there are some systemic things that are changing. There was always an expectation before the pandemic that candidates had to be perfect. It’s certainly much more understanding now, which is a great thing.”
As employers and job-seekers alike adjust to changing expectations, form new models of connection and recruiting, and recover from pandemic shocks, Beaudin says the lessons learned over the pandemic will prove to be valuable assets.
“I feel extremely positively about this generation. You have to believe you’re being equipped with the right skillset … This is the building block of your know-how moving forward. Know to be agile, on the lookout, make sure you’re connecting with people,” Beaudin says. “At the end of the day, humans hire humans.”
Whether students have just graduated, are looking for work, or plan to in the near future, they can expect a radically different job market than their predecessors. Whether or not these changes are ultimately for the better, only time will tell.
This article was initially published in the Bull & Bear’s Fall 2021 print edition, which you can access here.