Graduation is usually a time for celebration and new beginnings. However, the class of 2020 has had a very different experience indeed. The coronavirus pandemic has left many recent graduates in limbo after the majority of companies were forced to cancel or postpone internships. In fact, a recent poll revealed that 61% of employers have cancelled either some or all of their offered work placements.
One recent graduate explains how she turned her disappointment at cancelled internships into an opportunity to kickstart her career.
Like thousands of other students who graduated during the pandemic, Emily Lowes, a First Class history graduate from University of Bristol, received the disappointing news that her two summer internships would no longer be going ahead. “I was really, really excited but then corona hit and both companies, at the start of lockdown, sent me emails saying, ‘We’re just letting you know we don’t know what’s going to happen so it might be the case that we have to cancel your internship,’” she said.
Lowes, who worked as a student brand ambassador for dating site Bumble and as a field sales representative for gourmet sweet brand Candy Kittens during university, had set her sights on entering the food and drink industry. She had two summer internships lined up—a three-week work placement at a boutique PR agency and a three-month paid internship at a food and beverage start-up consultancy—but she was let down at short notice.
“One said it’s indefinitely postponed, but that they’ll get us back in as soon as they can. I doubt that will be any time soon,” she said. “The other said they didn’t have the capacity to take anyone because a large number of staff were put on furlough so they wouldn’t have anyone to work with anyway.”
Cancellations have become a theme of 2020, but the news still came as a blow to Lowes who, like many others, had little warning. “It was really sad because obviously as a graduate I was excited to go from the stressful dissertation and exam period to living in London,” she said.
Before the bad news arrived, Lowes, from Birmingham, thought she had all her ducks in a row. “The idea of living in London was really exciting and I had a house. I was really stressed out that I was going to lose my money on the house, and that I wasn’t going to have a job for the summer. I hadn’t any back-up options because I thought it was all planned.”
Companies were quick to put the brakes on accepting graduates, but don’t despair. Lowes, for one, wasn’t willing to accept no for an answer.
With high hopes of eventually starting her own food and drink challenger business, Lowes decided that she didn’t want to give up on her dream.“I take the initiative quite a lot and I thought, ‘I’m not just going to sit around and do nothing,’ so I started looking online for options,” she said.
Unless you’re one of the lucky few with access to great contacts, it’s important to learn how to make your application stand out from the crowd, and that’s exactly what Lowes set out to do.
Lowes completed more than 30 job applications after learning her internships had fallen through. “I’d just spend the whole day applying to things and messaging people, saying things like, ‘I know you’re involved in this company, are there any opportunities? Even if it’s just to shadow or hear about it?’ Pretty much everyone replied with, ‘Oh, we’re not sure how our operations are going to run at the moment’, so unfortunately, no.’”
Lowes decided to reach out to companies directly. When she didn’t get the answers she was looking for—receiving numerous rejection emails—she headed to social media and put out the feelers.
Her hunch wasn’t misguided. A 2016 survey revealed that 84% of recruiters use social media to hire candidates. SHRM, who carried out the survey, also found that a staggering 96% of employers rate Linkedin as their top choice of platform.
It was through social media that Lowes finally managed to secure another internship. She saw peers asking about work opportunities on LinkedIn and followed suit. “I put out [a LinkedIn post] saying, ‘I’ve had my internships cancelled, I would like experience in this field, I’m happy to work unpaid, I’m really passionate.’ I listed why I’d be a good candidate, and then I was messaged by the CEO of RNS Meals, Simmy Dhillon. He said, ‘You can come in as a marketing intern and we’ll pay you,’ which was fantastic,” said Lowes.
Without the online platform, Lowes doesn’t think she would have found an opening. “If I hadn’t done the LinkedIn posts, I wouldn’t have got the internship. I got messaged after [the CEO] saw my LinkedIn post. He said that he was really impressed by the initiative I’d taken to do that post and by the passion and interests that I have in the field.”
For Lowes, landing a placement wasn’t quite as simple as just posting on LinkedIn. The process was a massive learning curve. To begin with, Lowes said that seeing the way others were posting online, and the format of their profiles and CVs, was really beneficial. “I saw a lot of people posting their CVs on the [LinkedIn] newsfeed. A lot of my connections are other graduates in the same position as me.”
This gave Lowes a clearer idea of what employers seek in applications. “As a history student, I’d written my CV in a lot of prose. I didn’t realise that a lot of companies would rather have it very formulaic: ‘I did X, which produced Y, which did Z.’ I changed my CV on LinkedIn and it really did improve my applications,” said Lowes.
Lowes also discovered ways to make her LinkedIn page stand out. “I added little bullet points so my profile looked more interesting. I tried to post more often as well, for example, ‘I’ve just finished my dissertation, this is what I’ve learnt’ or ‘I’m still looking for a position’, and the traffic to my page went up. I got an email yesterday saying I’d had 1,500 views in the last 90 days, which is cool because I don’t think I know 1,500 people.”
Through social media, Lowes also learnt about new opportunities and companies, including a virtual careers fair set up by Pot Noodle and Gradbay. “That was incredible because it specifically targeted corona-times graduates and students. There were lots of companies at the careers fair and they were all trying to help students get experience. ‘Weird and wonderful internships’ is how Pot Noodle described them. It was set up as AR [augmented reality] so you could go in and walk around it as a person, but as an avatar. It was very cool,” said Lowes.
This careers fair led to Lowes landing not one but two internship placements: one with Unilever working with the Pot Noodle brand and another with Raptor London, a student marketing agency.
For many graduates, clambering onto that first rung of the career ladder can be the hardest. Learning to take rejections can be incredibly difficult for anyone, and young hopefuls are no exception.
“I applied to bigger companies but all of them said the same. I was getting really disheartened, thinking, ‘I’ve come out of university with a really good degree and no one wants me, even unpaid.’ I know all my friends were thinking the same thing,” she said.
Despite the rejections, Lowes stayed proactive and positive. Alongside job hunting, she embarked on an online digital marketing course in a bid to upskill her CV. “I thought it would be useful because I could gain certifications and show employers that I was using my time wisely,” she said.
It’s been a long journey, but Lowes says it was well worth it. Over the summer, she completed three different internships with RNS, Unilever and Raptor. Now she is looking to apply to graduate schemes for the 2021 intake.
“I feel that everything happens for a reason. I’ve gained such a variety of experience, from innovation in packaging design at Pot Noodle, to strategic planning at RNS. I’ve gained so many skills which, in some ways, I don’t think I would have necessarily gained if I was doing the internships I was supposed to do,” said Lowes.
Despite the very real obstacles presented by the Covid-19 crisis for young graduates, with grit and determination, it is possible to turn the odds in your favour. The steps taken by Lowes may not be able to improve a gloomy economy, but they are a sure-fire way for recent graduates to stay positive and improve their chances of getting a foot in the door.
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