Students and new grads are being uniquely affected by the pandemic as classes are being held remotely, social supports are being cut off, and with so much upheaval in the work world the prospect of getting an education and a career at the end of it is more uncertain than ever.
The pandemic has caused major disruptions to the lives and education of students. Schools are functioning on remote or hybrid remote schedules subject to rapidly changing regional guidelines. As a result, teaching is being done online and in many cases by educators who have had little or no training or support before being expected to figure it out themselves.
Remote learning is most effective in cases where students have steady access to a computer and wifi, and when supports and resources are readily available to them when they need it. This is regrettably not the case for many. Research suggests that low income students are doing more poorly than their peers due to an unequal access to resources and support. Some schools are providing laptops to students, but there’s still wifi, home environment, and an institutional lack of support for those struggling to contend with. Educators can only help so much when what students are struggling with is the remote technology - and that’s assuming teachers are comfortable enough with it themselves. The questionable value of system-wide remote learning is likely to have impacts on broader pathways to continuing education and employment.
Post-secondary students are facing similar troubles.
While many are still living on campus, student life looks very different these days. Social distancing and mask wearing is mandated and health checks are regularly conducted, with some schools doing daily health screenings. COVID modules on safety protocols must be completed before students are permitted to attend classes. Classes themselves may be offered remotely or on a rotating basis to try and bring down the amount of foot traffic in the halls. Labs which must be done in-person are being rethought and reworked with more call for precautions and personalized equipment - but sometimes the measures are not enough and the courses are postponed, stalling students from completing their degrees.
There have been closures and reduced hours at food halls, libraries, computer labs, bookstores and other facilities that make up the campus ecosystem, with reduced services available to students when they are available at all. Getting basic necessities has become more difficult for those living on isolated campuses. Athletic services are in some cases completely closing down and the gyms are being repurposed as classrooms.
Many students are being urged not to travel or go home for holidays, even as single people elsewhere are allowed contact with one other household. Interpreting the mixed messages of varying regional guidelines is especially confusing for students on campus, as they often live with roommates and share a communal bathroom making isolation tricky at best. Some campuses have provided on-campus COVID testing and spaces for students trying to isolate before going home, but young adults are still left with the heavy choice of staying alone and isolated on campus or going home and risking potentially giving their families COVID. In cases where students and their families do not see eye to eye on following guidelines, it only leads to more stress and guilt in an already emotionally tumultuous time.
It’s understandable that faced with these challenges many young adults are struggling with mental health.
An APA study found 15-20% of students identified as needing mental health support before the pandemic. Significant life shifts, academic stressors, and uncertainty of the future are bad for mental health in general, and for a group most keenly aware of their future life chances and careers the pandemic has only created more stress in what is an already stressful situation. Cut off from their peers and families many students are feeling isolated and struggle to stay on task, impeding learning and development in a broader sense and leading to greater disengagement.
Due to most learning being done remotely it is harder than ever for staff and teachers to see who is struggling - a task made difficult in the best of times as many who are suffering do not give obvious signs that they are doing so. Without walk-ins and personal meetings there are even less cues to pick up on with communication largely being regulated to virtual meetings. And when in-person meetings do happen there’s social distancing and masks to make things more difficult.
A study conducted during France’s May-April lockdown found that 11.4% of students had suicidal thoughts, 22.4% reported severe distress, 24.7% high perceived stress, 16.1% severe depression, and 27,5% reported high anxiety. 43.8% of students reported having at least one of the mentioned outcomes. Only 12.4% reported seeking help.
Having students complete surveys on their emotional wellbeing has been suggested to identify those who are struggling and to provide them with help. However these results would likely have to go through several levels of screening before a student is referred to a councillor, and is entirely dependent on students filling out the surveys honestly and then agreeing to see a councillor.
Landing a job as a new grad has largely become a matter of luck.
Many employers have halted spring recruitment, some even rescinding on offers previously made to students leading to a large number of internships being cancelled or postponed. Schools are temporarily suspending for-credit internships, sometimes even in cases where the employer is still willing to let the internship go forward. We are seeing more virtual internships spring up but the numbers are still less than ideal for students.
There’s been a worrying trend of employers overlooking new grads and instead looking to hire only those with more experience. Part of this is an attempt to mitigate risk and save costs on training new talent. The other part is that the pandemic has opened labour pools and highly desirable star talent is suddenly on the job market. In the mad scramble to attract top talent, students and grads are being left behind. Entry level positions are declining, even for developers. This is a rather short-sighted tactic to not invest in students, but perhaps it is understandable with many businesses focused on survival and only looking to get through the present instead of thinking of the future.
New grads are struggling to find decent paying work, with many settling for whatever jobs they can get even when they aren’t in their fields. Many are living at home and are hesitant about taking part-time work and potentially exposing their parents to COVID. Black college grads are disproportionately affected in the search for work, and with the lack of entry level jobs it may increase the wealth gap already widened by the 2008 recession - which also led to a significant drop in income from black communities.
With grads either taking poor paying jobs or looking to additional education in the hopes it will lead to better outcomes, the delay and lessened entry level salaries are likely to have negative long-lasting impacts on their careers and life opportunities.
It’s still too soon to know the full impact the pandemic will have on the quality of education students are receiving, or how it will in turn affect their larger pathways to employment.
For the time being we can expect to see less students going to college or university for computer science. With more emphasis being put on soft and transferable skills, and with employers putting more weight on online certification, young adults are turning to nontraditional employment paths. Major tech companies like google have started hiring for skills instead of credentials, allowing those unable to get a traditional degree to get their foot in the door.
Students must be able to market themselves online to employers in what Codeitup calls a “virtual handshake.” This means having a professional media profile, an online portfolio, experience in communicating via remote technologies, and having an online code repository. More employers are looking to the internet and social media to find new hires, so having a professional online presence is more important than ever in getting a job.
The pandemic has affected everyone - if not equally - and as vaccines are slowly being distributed many stressors students are facing may start to ease. We will have to hold employers to not question resume gaps or lack of relevant employment during this time, and educational institutions to look more forgivingly on poorer grades earned in an untested, largely unprepared remote learning environment.
It’s important to remember that these are uncertain times. Things are changing, for better or for worse but they are changing. Any period of great systematic upheaval will shake things up and bring with it positives as well as the more obvious negatives. Old rules and metrics used to determine a candidate’s worth will not hold up anymore in the face of the new reality wrought by a pandemic, and already we are seeing a shift towards employers favouring more soft and transferable skills over credentials ideal to one static role.
It may very well be these same students and grads who are being overlooked by employers and institutions alike who will set new metrics and change the shape of recruiting and job-readiness to reflect the present and the future - and not the outdated values that have barred so many from employment in the past.