Pandemic Pursuits: What Job Seekers Need to Do Differently
I find myself glancing at my phone constantly, nervously checking for texts, posts, IMs, emails … anything … any sign of connection. I admit to having fragile feelings when things don’t work out. I console myself with thoughts like:
“It’s just as well. There was no chemistry.”
“I’m better off.”
“It’s their loss.”
“The right one will come along.”
Am I dating? No. I’m job hunting. I lost my job at a nonprofit organization at the beginning of June, laid off as part of a national downsizing, a direct result of the economic impact of COVID-19. I’m 28 years into my career, but job hunting in this economy has left me feeling like I’m in middle school again in the early 1980s, passing a handwritten note with instructions to check one: Yes or No. Does [prospective employer] still like Lorri and want to be friends? Follow up: Does [prospective employer] “like like” Lorri?
Gosh, I need something to occupy my time … you know, like a full-time job.
And I’m not alone.
The pandemic has affected many areas of life, including the economy and job market. Looking back on the summer months, Kentucky’s unemployment rate in July was 5.7 percent. In Indiana, where I live, that rate was 7.8 percent for the same month. Both stats, while higher than the previous year (4.3 percent and 3.2 percent respectively), were still lower than the national average for that month of 10.2 percent, according to each state’s Department of Workforce Development.
Back in the old days (you know, 2019), we job seekers would need to hit networking events with a resume in hand to work the room for job prospects, introduce ourselves to key contacts over coffee and close the deal with a firm, confident handshake. Those methods aren’t going to work in the socially-distant market of 2020. So, what does? Networking.
NETWORKING IN A VIRTUAL WORLD
Tried and true, networking is still a thing — a big thing, actually — for job seekers in a saturated market. But like so many other facets of life, it has gone virtual. Networking organizations had to scramble last spring when the guidance for social distancing affected the size of crowds that could gather, with many canceling or postponing events in hopes the guidance would be short-lived. It didn’t take long for organizations to see they would have to pivot to other options.
“I think we were just naïve in March in thinking we would just take a two-week break,” says Ann Marie Maldini, executive director of the Young Professionals Association of Louisville (YPAL). “So we went virtual right away.” She said the YPAL board of directors, made up of 18 volunteer members, sprang into action immediately, helping reimagine networking events and rework sponsorship proposals to help the organization shift to serve its members. “I have been blown away by my board,” Maldini says. “They all have full-time jobs, families, and their own worries about COVID-19, but they’ve been so great, so creative.”
YPAL offered its traditionally live Speed Networking event in a virtual format via Zoom within weeks of the changing guidance and immediately received positive feedback from members. Buoyed by that success, and with the continued support of sponsors, the board decided to suspend fees for all events so members and non-members, many of whom are new graduates in the job market for the first time, could take advantage of networking and professional development opportunities to have a fighting chance in the COVID-19 economy. “People who are furloughed or laid off don’t want to spend money on events,” Maldini says.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF FREE RESOURCES
Holly Prather, vice president of Leadership Louisville, echoes that sentiment, noting job seekers are looking for a valuable experience without a significant investment. “People today need to access highquality leadership content, so we decided to make it more accessible,” Prather says.
Leadership Louisville also offers free virtual events for both networking and professional development, using virtual breakout sessions within Zoom so attendees can easily participate in small group sessions, traditionally called “table sessions,” that were led in a live format. While the switch seemed risky at first, Prather says the overwhelmingly positive feedback from participants affirmed that networking in a virtual environment can be done and be done well. “We were able to recreate as much of a traditional networking event as possible in a virtual format,” Prather says. “We got great reviews.”
Prather recommends job seekers not be shy about signing up for events to make a social connection. “Social distancing — let’s stop using that word — we need to stay physically distant, but we need to stay social,” she says. “With so many free, virtual events going on, I would definitely be a joiner. You just never know where it might lead.”
Betty Fox, director of workforce development for Louisville Urban League (LUL), agrees. “Take your skills and your talent and connect with companies,” she says. “Be visible. Keep your face in the place.”
Fox recommends job seekers do their research on the job market, possibly exploring other opportunities outside their established field in the spirit of reinvention. “With job hunting, you have to be flexible and you have to be adaptive,” she says. While overall unemployment rates have been high, Fox points out some areas — construction, health care and logistics, for example — have been hiring during the pandemic.
“Especially during this pandemic, it can be looked at as the worst time to be job hunting, or it can be the best time to be job hunting, depending on your mindset,” Fox says.
LUL offers several free virtual programs for job seekers, including weekly resume writing workshops and twice-monthly Workforce Wednesdays led by hiring professionals. Fox recommends job seekers take advantage of free programs to update their resumes so they can not only reach out to existing contacts but also diversify their network with new connections. “With networking, you have to keep your net working. Cast your net wide. If you stay with the same people, you’re going to catch the same fish,” she says. Fox recommends staying focused on the big picture, while doing the seemingly small things necessary to position yourself for success. “The big is in the little,” she says. “All those little things — doing your research, networking, updating your resume, diversifying your network — get you back to where you were … and maybe even beyond.”
Be sure that updated resume is visible on LinkedIn because, according to Kayla Schaeffer, corporate recruiter at Atria Senior Living, that’s where recruiters are looking for job seekers. “LinkedIn is more important than ever before. If I were in the job market now, I’d want my resume on LinkedIn to be perfect.”
Schaeffer recommends job seekers update their LinkedIn profile to include not only the most polished version of their resume, but also a green band around the profile picture with the hashtag #OpenToWork so they are readily visible to recruiters. (You can do this on your profile under Edit Job Preferences/Add the #OpenToWork Photo Frame.) She also recommends job seekers follow the companies to which they applied on LinkedIn and proactively reach out to staff — especially human resources — at that company and ask to connect, even if they don’t actually know the person. Moreover, she recommends job seekers send that recruiter a direct message to let the recruiter know they’ve applied for an open position and are interested in the company.
“It doesn’t hurt to ask,” Schaeffer says of networking through LinkedIn. “You messaging one person on LinkedIn could change the whole trajectory of your career. You have to be willing to get out of your comfort zone.”
And if your networking efforts pay off and you land an interview, Schaeffer says treat your virtual interview like you would an in-person interview, but … different.
“Wear exactly what you would wear to your normal, in-person interview … at least from the waist up. It’s OK to be in PJs and house slippers from the waist down,” she says with a laugh, but quickly emphasizes, “Dress for the job you want.”
Schaeffer says having your home in the background is fine — interviewers know you are at home, so there’s no need to use fake backgrounds provided by the video chat platform, but you want to be sure to have someone else tend to your young kids and pets so you can focus during the interview. You also need to be sure, ahead of the interview, that you are comfortable using the video chat platform the company uses, such as Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, or Zoom. If you can’t unmute yourself to answer a question, for example, ”it can be detrimental to the productivity of the interview,” Schaeffer says.
And while a handwritten thank you note might be impractical nowadays — you’d likely have to mail it to the interviewer’s home address — a follow-up email thanking the interviewer for their time is a classic way to make a good impression. More than anything, Schaeffer asks that candidates be patient with the hiring process. She says hiring managers are dealing with a lot of uncertainty, such as budget changes, and can have difficulty prioritizing interviewing candidates.
Even when an offer is made, the usual candidate screenings — background checks, drug tests, and now, COVID-19 tests — are taking longer because of pandemic-related delays to the court system and laboratories, which can mean delays for eager candidates ready to get back to work. “Pre-COVID-19, we’d say, ‘Here’s your offer; here’s a great start date,’ but that’s changed,” she says. “We’re just asking people for a lot of patience.”
And finally, a little advice from me: If you lost your job and are thrown back into the job market, be sure to give yourself time to process your feelings. When I lost my job, I felt shocked, hurt, mad, sad, bitter, embarrassed, relieved, guilty — all emotions that come with an undesired life change. I eventually came to a place of peace, renewed confidence, even excitement, and it made my job search — and resulting interview process — that much more fruitful.
After all, you don’t want to be that girl who goes on a first date and blathers on about her ex the whole time because she’s still carrying baggage. Giving yourself a little time for a healthy perspective on the experience will help you move on in a positive way toward your next great career adventure. As Fox puts it, “This is not doom and gloom. It’s a revitalization of yourself. It’s all in how you look at it.”
HOW TO NETWORK IN A VIRTUAL WORLD
• Stay on top of professional development. Look for free or reduced-priced events and professional development programs that are offered virtually.
• Be a joiner. Take advantage of professional memberships by asking if membership fees are reduced or suspended. Join professional membership committees. Volunteer for nonprofit organizations to connect with others, learn a new skill, or lend a hand.
• Get that LinkedIn profile in top shape. Recruiters are looking for you on LinkedIn. Be sure they can find you.
• Check out these resources for job searches, programs for job seekers, memberships, and free networking and professional development events: kycareeredge.com, focuscareer.ky.gov, kentuckianaworks.org, leadershiplouisville.org, ypal.org, and lul.org.