When I first was heading into university, I never thought my post-secondary journey would end with me being more scared about my future than I was before I entered. University is meant to be a place where you find yourself, find your passion, and find the tools you’ll need to move into a career. But as my graduation date seeps closer, however, I can’t help but ask that ever-cruel question that so many recent and soon-to-be graduates are plaguing themselves with: What now?
In a world that is quite literally engulfed in crisis, it’s hard to imagine the future of finding a job in a world that may not even be quite safe to re-enter once we walk across that stage (or watch our names appear on a screen.)
While COVID-19 tests are hidden gems within the province, Omicron cases are hitting remarkable highs, with over 4,000 people currently admitted in hospitals across the province with the virus. But this doesn’t change the fact that employers are calling their workers back into the offices.
Looking for a job fresh out of graduation can feel like fighting a war you’ve already lost. When looking at the current job market, are students’ fears worth the worry, or has the pandemic just conditioned us to think that our future has to look grim?
Setting the Scene: Two Years of COVID-19
Statistics Canada released a report in May of 2020 detailing how the COVID-19 pandemic had just begun to affect post secondary students. Of the students involved in the survey, 28 per cent of students planned to continue with their current jobs after their academic term— but of that 28 per cent, 21 per cent of those students ended up losing their employment, 34 per cent were laid off just two months later, and 26 per cent had their hours cut.
During the school months of 2020, pay rates for young employees increased, which Statistics Canada states was driven by the disappearance of lower-paying positions held by young Canadians. While in May of 2020, unemployment rates for students aged 15 to 24 hit a high at just over 29 per cent, as of November 2021, the unemployment rate in Canada for all ages has fallen to six per cent.
This doesn’t conceal the fact, however, that students are still struggling with finding steady employment in their desired field. Wilfred Tang, communications and data analyst for Toronto Community Employment Services (TCES), explains why this might be.
“COVID-19 has put a dampener on networking opportunities for new graduates. Up to 80 per cent of job opportunities are not listed publicly and are historically filled through referrals. It makes it harder for new graduates without a strong network to seek, find, and access these hidden opportunities.”
With COVID-19 pushing new employers online, networking opportunities for students have had to shift as well. To network, simply put, is to make personal and professional connections with others, often to those in similar fields as you. It’s meant as a way to familiarize yourself with people and organizations — and as Tang mentioned, these networks more often than not lead to those hidden jobs.
A 2021 commerce graduate — who wishes to remain anonymous — notes that as their student contract came to an end as a result of COVID-19 related budget cuts, their outlook for employment became grim when looking to make those networking connections.
“Networking was lacking since I wasn’t seeing many people in a professional capacity — there were no opportunities for that besides Zoom. I felt like I was losing the social side of me while entering the next chapter of my life.”
They continue on to say that they were constantly fearing what was next, and that they “couldn’t even plan for it because many places weren’t hiring.”
“The global pandemic spurred a cultural shift around the understanding and value of remote work,” says Bob Eichvald, director of Career Education & Development at York. “Our world and our way of working has changed because of the pandemic, making it more acceptable to work remotely as needed. As a result, there has been a rise in remote work opportunities within various industries, leading to a fundamental shift in Canada’s work culture.”
No one could have predicted that working remotely would play such a vital role in modern day careers, but according to an October 2021 survey conducted by Angus Reid for Cisco Canada, 72 per cent of employees stated that their companies were planning on moving forward with a hybrid remote and in-person work plan, with 14 per cent of that group saying their company will be adapting a fully-remote model.
Tang offers that this should be looked at as a positive element for new graduates, as we’ll be the first “cohorts of graduates to be fully trained in a virtual environment.”
“Your lectures, projects, work, collaborations, and other forms of interactions have been fully virtual. You are graduating not just with your degrees, but also the skills and experience to work remotely. Workplaces are in various levels of adapting to the new virtual work environment and you have the ability to hit the floor running or even assist and improve with the virtual transition.”
How are students feeling about their potential future?
Among all interviewed, there was a resounding agreement across the board that these student anxieties that come with searching for a career after graduation are valid and to be expected. Eichvald even states that these fears were legitimate far before the pandemic began.
“Feelings of fear and anxiety are natural when students are approaching graduation and thinking about their next step, and most graduates will feel this uncertainty each year. It is a big step to take from being a student to becoming a professional in the working world.”
The anonymous graduate also adds that the fears can stem from students feeling as though they are missing out on important life skills one will need to move forward in their career. “Many also feel as if they aren’t ‘learning enough’ due to online school and missing out on the classroom experience. It’s not the same and it absolutely can impact how someone moves forward in their career paths.”
Alisa-Florence Stanley, a fourth-year film and media student at Humber College, and Caroline Febbraro, a fourth-year cinema and media studies student at York, echo the graduate’s sentiment, as both address the worries that come with students looking to break into the film industry amidst the pandemic.
Stanley says that they feel like they’re going to “fall behind in the industry” because they’re not caught up as much as others.
“A lot of my anxieties just surround how the pandemic has changed the film industry. For example, while there is a much higher demand for content, a lot of the people graduating school and entering the industry haven’t had much opportunity to be on set in the last few years.”
Stanley continues to say that while their program has provided their students with information on finding employment after graduation, it’s hard under the current national and international circumstances to predict how the pandemic will affect work in this field in the coming future.
Febbraro echoes the point, saying that the pandemic has most definitely spurred fears of uncertainty in new graduates.
“It’s unpredictable overall and presents the possibility of jobs being eradicated to save money for the companies that may be suffering as a result of the pandemic. With less jobs available or accessible, it makes it harder to get into the workforce, and even more worrisome for newcomers like myself trying to break into it.”
Lack of experience is a common fear students are experiencing following the online shift in learning since late in the 2020 school year. Febbraro explains that even field placements or entry-level internships are currently difficult to come by.
“For someone like myself who has no experience working with film, it seems like a fever dream that I’d even land an assistant or associate job at a film company. I feel that for some, this may be a common anxiety they feel while approaching graduation or even while searching for jobs,” continuing to say that she is hopeful, however, that the field is ever-expanding.
For students graduating this year (myself included) it’s hard to imagine coming out from behind the screen and stepping into the rest of our lives. While it’s definitely intimidating, starting off the search on a strong foot with effective resources may be the best way to find a light at the end of this tunnel.
Looking to the future, Febbraro hopes for post-secondary institutions to incorporate more practical learning beyond final year field placements, potentially having the campus have a hand in creating those jobs for their students.
“Additionally, schools could also integrate more courses that specifically toil with job and field preparation. I feel that many of us in arts and liberal arts programs do not know what to entirely anticipate upon entering the workforce. If our schools, however, were to provide said courses, it could mitigate our apprehensions and let us enter into the world out of school more confidently.”
The anonymous graduate says that when it comes to struggling to find employment, one should become increasingly familiar with every young professional’s favourite website: LinkedIn. “Create a LinkedIn, connect with people, especially people who work at places you’re interested in working at. There are also many forums online to ask questions in or to read advice — you just have to search for them.”
They also urge graduates, regardless of how hopeful or desperate they may feel, to be careful when choosing their initial post-graduation position.
“I strongly suggest that you do not accept the first job offered to you just because you want or need a job. Going into a job that ends up being awful (because you were in over your head and accepted it without a second thought) is worse than the job hunt, so make sure you take time with your decisions.”
Tang adds that in addition to reaching out to TCES for help finding employment in the digital market, the best way for students to get their foot in the door is to be open to working in positions that “aren’t directly related to your field of study.”
“There is a labour shortage in industries decimated by COVID-19 due to workers leaving and not returning. Now is the time to get into those industries as they are projected to recover post-COVID-19. These industries include but are not limited to retail, food, hospitality, tourism, and skilled and general labourers.”
Help is available for students on a local scale as well — as long as they know where to look. According to Eichvald, York’s Career Education and Development (CED) exists to help students combat their career anxieties. The services provided to York students and recent graduates give the community “professional support and guidance to become career ready.”
CED offers annual events, such as career and volunteer fairs, recruitment sessions, and Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion panels, as well as hosting weekly career lounges for students to talk with Career Peer Educators.
But even with the tools and knowledge of how one can move forward, it is still normal to feel as though you are moving at rapid speed, with deadlines, due dates, and the rest of your life barrelling towards you. If you take anything away from this, hopefully it’s the knowledge that people share and recognize your anxieties — and maybe that knowledge of community is just enough to keep you motivated on the job hunt.
We may not know what the future of pandemic holds, as each day brings about a new headline that hints that metaphorical fuel is being added to the fire, but the fear will subside.
As Tang expertly says, “This too, shall pass.”