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It’s a tough time to be young. The legacy of COVID-19 is likely to be felt particularly acutely by those just starting out in their careers, who have had vastly reduced opportunities to build work experience. They now also face a huge amount of competition for roles from those who are newly unemployed or in work that’s now unstable.

While the universities sector can’t do much about the way the economy or jobs market is at the moment, there are steps to take and considerations to keep in mind that could see careers services teams support students and recent graduates even more effectively than they already do – particularly as much of the application process remains online-only.

Fairer careers fairs

Careers fairs have gone almost entirely digital in the past year in response to the pandemic. But what started as a necessary response to keep things going has potential to really improve the process. In person fairs require employers to travel to campus. The financial and time requirement force employers to scope their recruitment efforts to the institutions they perceived as having a large population of relevant talent. The further afield or lesser known the university, the less likely employers would be willing to travel there. Virtual fairs, with their ability to connect from anywhere in the world, introduce a new paradigm in access. 

Currently, many virtual fairs consist of text-based chat, virtual booths, PDF brochures, and webinars – all of which have done a decent job of keeping things moving along. These fairs range in overall experience, but employers and universities alike report one key element is missing. From a student perspective it’s seen as serendipity. A casual glance toward an unknown employer, a warm smile and a hello from a recruiter at the stand that turns into a lovely conversation and an interview.  From a recruiter perspective, this is how the best teams are trained in the art of proactive recruitment and why in person fairs have been so effective. 

Virtual career fairs have the potential to create a more equitable playing field for employers, students, and universities alike. To realise this potential, the sector must focus on creating new avenues for proactive recruitment and serendipity. 

Technology dictates access

But virtual careers fairs are only one part of the effort to create better Early Careers Networks between students and employers. Improved access for digitally disadvantaged students needs to be taken into consideration when helping them build their career prospects.

Much of the legacy technology used in university careers centres has failed to evolve along with changing needs, in some cases actually creating barriers rather than facilitating connections. Disadvantaged students from working class backgrounds, who are already less likely to have digital professional networks consisting of family, friends and prestigious schools, will have struggled more to engage with careers centres during the pandemic.

Whether it’s a case of having to share devices, not having a good quality internet connection or just not having a laptop at home, less privileged students face being cut off in the digital-only careers support world. This current situation decreases their chances of quality employment and puts a handbrake on social mobility. 

As such, making sure careers service offerings are mobile-optimised at a minimum is a key step to improving equality of access, with mobile device penetration at 98% among the 16-24 age group. This doesn’t necessarily require a top-to-bottom overhaul though. Adding support for third-party platforms like Handshake is a way to quickly and effectively broaden out the provision in place to connect students with careers centres – and the businesses and organisations on the lookout for talent.

Jobs boards won’t get us out of here 

With a roadmap out of lockdown on the horizon it is tempting to assume some form of business as usual will return come autumn. The natural inclination is to assume that processes that worked before COVID will continue to work, reducing some of the pressure on technology. 

With one of the greatest economic contractions in recent history underway, the need for student careers support is increasing. Employers that are still hiring will follow the path of least resistance to find great talent. Universities continue to navigate uncertain budget realities, making large team growth in the careers service challenging. These realities create challenges of scale that technology is uniquely positioned to solve.  

When services stop scaling to demand, it has a very real human toll. As more students seek out part-time work, take on care responsibilities, and balance the mental health pressure of this new world, it has become even more important for careers support to meet students where they are at. If students are required to engage at pre-prescribed times and at set physical locations in order to get optimal value from the service, these services will disadvantage the students who are already most disadvantaged. 

To solve these challenges though, technologies must go beyond transactional databases. Access to a better designed jobs board or appointment booking tool is unlikely to transform a student’s life. Instead, universities must seek out platforms that create authentic human to human connection in a scalable way. Technology, at its best, can unlock the immense social capital that surrounds today’s universities and have a profound impact on students' trajectories. 

The current uncertain economic climate means that professional connections and career support are more important than ever for students and graduates.

Universities careers services have always held a key role in facilitating links between the business world and the academic world. Using the insights already held, alongside the next generation of careers technology, can help make information on candidates more transparent and accessible, having the potential to supercharge their role and boost student careers prospects.

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