I graduated with my Bachelor of Science degree back in 1982, almost 40 years ago. Similar to the Class of 2020, I also graduated into a world of global economic volatility and recession. At the time, it was considered to be the worst economic climate since the Second World War. However, what today’s young graduates are facing is undoubtedly far more challenging on so many levels and from so many different perspectives.
I still clearly remember the mixture of emotions I felt as I left the cosseted world of education and entered the world of work. From excitement and optimism to trepidation and fear, there was a lot going on.
Leaving formal education is hard enough under ‘normal’ economic circumstances. After all, graduating means leaving so much of what you’ve known for the past few years behind. It means moving away from the bubble you’ve been living in; the life that many have already told you will have been “the best time of your life”. It means going it alone for the first time in the ‘real world’ where it’s just you making your own path, not someone laying that path in front of you for you to follow. It’s a hard adjustment and a big upheaval, which, quite frankly, I don’t think gets talked about nearly enough. I can only imagine the emotions the Class of 2020 are feeling right now – those who have already graduated and those who will later this year – as you ask the question…
Upon graduating university or college, most have a single question ringing loud in their ears: “now what?” After all, to date, your life has been dictated and structured by school and education. Up until this moment, you’ve always known what the next step will be – everything has been mapped out for you. At the same time, everyone you know – parents, friends, relatives and acquaintances – are all asking you: “What are your plans now that you’ve graduated?” It can feel overwhelming – a time steeped in pressure and expectation – especially if you don’t have all the answers to the “now what?” yet.
However, I want the Class of 2020 to know that feeling this way is normal, and it’s even more understandable given the current climate. As I explained in my last blog, the labour market you are entering into is one of the most challenging we have known. Many experienced professionals don’t even have the answers to their own “now what?” right now, so how on earth can you when you haven’t had experience in the world of work?
There’s so much advice out there for graduates from so many different sources, much of which is helpful but a lot not entirely relevant for these unprecedented times. So, I’d like to share my own thoughts and perspectives, to help you boost your employability and ultimately ensure your first steps into the world of work are as positive and successful as possible. I hope what I have to say is both useful and encouraging.
1. Be kind to yourself and give yourself some breathing space. You’ve just spent years working towards your degree and graduating, hopefully with the grades you’d always hoped for. Now that you’ve finally graduated, and you’ve enjoyed your celebrations and ceremonies, suddenly you find yourself brought back down to Earth with a bump. That can feel like a bit of an anti-climax. You may be feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, even a little sad as you close the door on that chapter of your life and embark on another which, at the moment, is full of unknowns. These feelings are normal. So, before throwing yourself straight into your job search and piling on the pressure from the get-go, take a couple of weeks to rest, take stock, readjust and start to really plan how you could be as proactive as possible as you start this new chapter of your life. Remember one thing too: you now have a degree and no one can ever take that off you. It’s become a part of who you are for the rest of your life and it shows you can learn and persevere and succeed.
2. Don’t write this time off. Don’t assume that the economic situation is so dire that you won’t be able to make any headway on your plans or take steps to improve your employability. Famous names in history have faced similar situations to you and did something about it. How about Sir Isaac Newton? He was in a startlingly similar situation to you way back in 1665-1666 when the plague meant universities closed and Newton, who at the time was studying at Cambridge University, left the college to take refuge in the countryside. During his year of quarantining, he developed theories on calculus, gravity and the laws of motion. He proclaimed this time as the most productive of his career. That can be an inspiration to us all, but the message is: use this time well. It’s not dead time, it’s time that you can use to demonstrate your proactivity and resilience. For example – and I know having just spent years studying, the thought of more learning might feel incomprehensible to you right now – but using this time to further upskill yourself is a great idea and one that I would really encourage. Take advantage of the huge amount of learning materials and courses out there online (you could even take a look at our training resources), or perhaps commit to something more long-term such as a Masters programme or exploring vocational training such as an apprenticeship. There are so many options out there to explore and you will gain something from each of them.
3. Showcase how you’ve used this time on your CV. A gap on your CV during which you’ve done nothing of real value will do absolutely nothing for your future career credentials. So, don’t forget to add to your CV all the ways in which you’ve been using your time, whether that be upskilling, volunteering, DIY, caring, setting up a remote book club or even attending virtual careers fairs or events. All of these things will demonstrate to employers that you’ve got grit despite the circumstances; that you’re taking control and won’t let life just ‘happen to you’, instead, you’re someone who ‘makes life happen’. They’ll showcase to employers your inventive, entrepreneurial and conscientious attitude and will help them build a fuller picture of you as a person, beyond just your grades. If you need some help writing or updating your CV, our CV Guide will be of use to you.
4. Become more self-aware. You are unique and so is your story. Your skills and your strengths and attitude are what make you, you. Realise that, despite what you may think, you have the skills someone is looking for right now. Today, employers want creativity. They want adaptability. They want new ideas and innovative thinking. You – a person that has lived the past few years vibrantly, experiencing new things and taking challenges in your stride – are what employers need to help them thrive in the new era of work. Also, take a moment to realise that you’re a very different person now than who you were just a few years ago. Think about what your own unique selling point, or your USP, is. What is it that makes you, you? What do you find meaning and purpose in? What unique value can you add? What are your strongest strengths? What are you naturally good at? What specifically will you bring to an employer? And this last question is not just about skills. It’s about who you are and what you will bring to their culture. Employers want people who will add to their culture and make the place better. Is that you? A little self-awareness, self-belief and self-confidence will take you a long way in your career, so start working on these now, and you’ll be in a good place in years to come.
5. Stop comparing yourself to others. The definition of success is relative. What you perceive as a ‘successful’ life will be very different to how others view success. Just because one of your peers at university has managed to land what they are telling the world is their ‘dream job’ doesn’t mean that they are more successful than you or that they are better than you in anyway. Take time to think about what you personally define as a successful next step for you right now. Remember that your story is actually that, your story, no one else’s. It really doesn’t matter if yours reads differently from everyone else’s, as long as it brings you a sense of personal fulfilment and achievement.
6. Stay positive. You’ve spent the last few years working towards a specific goal: to graduate. Now that you’ve met that goal, the hype has died down and the adrenaline has worn off, the gravity of the task you’re now faced with might hit you. You’ve now got to put your all into achieving yet another goal and I’m sure that can feel exhausting and overwhelming. So, reframe your mind to focus on all the positives you have to look forward to in the next chapter of your life. Maybe your aim is to build your own business, to start a family, to own your own home, to write a book or to travel the world (or all of the above and more). These are all experiences that you are yet to live. Graduation wasn’t the pinnacle of your life – it was a fantastic achievement – but you have so much yet to come. Your education is simply the key to open the door to the rest of your life and believe me, you will climb some much higher pinnacles in the years to come. While this point in your life may well be hard for many reasons, you will come through it and you will learn a whole lot along the way. When looking forward, it can be difficult to see where to turn. But in years to come you will look back and see the path you took, how it all pieced together and how each piece helped open the door to the next.
7. Be open minded. At this point of creating your path, be ready to consider roles you may not have initially planned for or envisaged in your future. Don’t confine yourself to just graduate positions either. Even if at first glance a job is a far cry from what you have in your mind as your ‘dream job’ or perhaps isn’t at the level you’d been hoping for, appreciate that every opportunity is an opportunity to learn, and learning is what you need to be doing the most of right now at this early stage in your career. I didn’t realise it at the time, but the experiences I went through, the things I saw and did, the people around me, the successes and failures of those early years in work shaped me, arguably more than at any other time in my life. Be open minded, too, to the fact that permanent roles aren’t the only option. You should also consider temporary or contract roles, as these will provide you with a great opportunity to build and expand your skillset, whilst gaining experience in a variety of settings and industries.
8. Don’t give up. Job searching under normal circumstances can be stressful. It can feel like an uphill struggle, but you must be persistent and stay positive. Don’t give up. If finding a job is your priority right now, then treat your job search as a job, as your 9-5 role; make it your number one priority and structure your day around that priority. Set yourself daily targets and track your progress. Focus your time and energy on searching for and submitting one or two tailored job applications per day, instead of blanket sending hundreds – doing so has a far better effort/reward ratio. A hiring manager will easily be able to spot a job application that’s had very little effort put into it, so ensure yours doesn’t fall into that category. Each application you submit should be unique to the position and company you’re applying for, it should talk directly to the reader and clearly articulate why you are the best person for the job and what you will bring as a human being. It’s also important to realise during these uncertain times that the hiring process will likely be longer, so don’t expect to hear back instantaneously, and whatever you do, don’t panic if you don’t. Similarly, if your application is rejected, don’t take it to heart or let it knock your confidence. Employers are struggling too remember. Try to seek feedback, learn from the experience and take solace in the fact that that specific opportunity obviously wasn’t the right route for you.
9. Remember, your first job won’t be your last job. Far from it. The idea of the job for life is no more. Here I am today leading one of the world’s biggest recruitment businesses, but my first job was building aeroplanes! So, don’t put so much pressure on yourself. You might be worried that you have no clue what you even want to do, don’t be. Your career will have many twists and turns and the decisions you make now won’t impact the trajectory of your career in the way you might think. Yes, they will form the jigsaw of your career path, but they won’t dictate it unless you allow them to. Use each role as a stepping stone instead, leading to a place you haven’t yet thought of. I never thought I would work in recruitment, nor that I would work in technology, consulting, building materials or oil exploration along the way. But I did and I’ve no regrets whatsoever. What I’m saying here is that your first job, or any of your subsequent jobs for that matter, don’t need to dictate your future career. They don’t even need to be directly related to the field you studied at university. Of course, your first job will set you off in a certain direction, but you must remember one thing: you are in the driving seat, and if you want to change direction, you can, and you will. So, when accepting your first role, don’t panic that ‘that’s it’ and you’re destined for a certain path. You aren’t, if you don’t want to be. What you do need to do is take everything you can from each experience regardless of your appetite for it – every opportunity will provide some kind of leverage to help you get to where you want to be.
10. Don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Often graduates are so focused on the next step or where they ultimately want to get to in their careers, that they don’t put their everything into the role they’re currently in. Of course, ambition is a great thing, but in a labour market as challenging as this, once you’ve secured a job, you really need to prove your value and your potential – without burning yourself out of course. So, once you’ve started your role, strive to be the best you can be at it, master every aspect of it, persevere through the aspects you like less (and every job, even mine, has them), and you’ll soon start to get noticed for other opportunities later down the line.
11. Talk to your friends and family and build your network. This is an isolating and scary time for all of us. Coupled with the stress of worrying about what the future might hold and the pressure to secure your first job, you’ll need a strong support network around you. These people should be those you know you can get help from, but also those who reenergise you, who give you perspective. A strong support network can also really help you figure out what it is that you actually want to do next. They can give their perspectives, and help you think more clearly and logically about what the right first step for you is. Also, talk to your friends from university who have managed to secure a job, ask for their advice and key learnings. In addition, it’s hugely important to lean on your virtual network. Get yourself set up with a LinkedIn profile if you don’t have one already, start building your network and ask them for their advice and expertise. Research prominent figures you look up to on the platform and review their profiles to get an understanding of the steps they’ve taken to get where they are today.
So, there we have it. By no means have I covered everything here, but as I said, I hope you’ve found my words both useful and encouraging, but also empowering. I’ve no doubt my network will also have some helpful advice to share, so I urge them to do so in the comments section below.
You, the Class of 2020, are unique. You have a unique story to tell, and it’s one that employers will want to hear – if you tell it well and you have enough good material. This specific chapter of your life – the one you’re writing right now – will be defining for you in so many ways. After all, this is the chapter in which you, as the lead character, overcame adversity and found opportunity in a period of great uncertainty. It’s one in which you showed resilience, tenacity and grit in pursuit of your goals and ambitions. So, I urge you to use the advice I’ve shared in this blog to ensure that this unique chapter of your own personal story is as strong and compelling as it should be. If you do, the chapters that follow will be far easier to write, believe me. Good luck!
This blog was originally published as a LinkedIn Influencer blog.
Alistair has been the CEO of Hays, plc since Sept. 2007. An aeronautical engineer by training (University of Salford, UK, 1982), Alistair commenced his career at British Aerospace in the military aircraft division. From 1983-1988, he worked Schlumberger filling a number of field and research roles in the Oil & Gas Industry in both Europe and North America.
In 2002, he returned to the UK as CEO of Xansa, a UK based IT services and back-office processing organisation. During his 5 year tenure at Xansa, he re-focused the organisation to create a UK leading provider of back-office services across both the Public and Private sector and built one of the strongest offshore operations in the sector with over 6,000 people based in India.
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