The COVID-19 pandemic has done a number on the economy, social lives, and careers, affecting young people in unique ways. With the spring 2021 semester well underway, some high school students, college students, and recent graduates have careers on their minds after 5- and even 10-year plans were thrown off course by the events of the past year.

According to a study by the Wall Street Journal, entry-level college-graduate hiring has fallen 45% since the start of the pandemic. Young people were hit hardest by COVID-19-related unemployment: Per a report by the Economic Policy Institute, from spring 2019 to spring 2020, the unemployment rate for those 25 and older rose by 8.5% to 11.3%; the unemployment rate for workers age 16 through 24 rose by 16% to 24.4%. Many young people remain cut off from their academic networks, are grappling with lost internships, or meeting new coworkers for the first time over Zoom, as many offices remain remote.

Teen Vogue spoke with career coaches and recruitment experts to provide you with some guidance for finding work in this strange new landscape.

Take steps to prepare for your Zoom interview

Ian Siegel, co-founder, and CEO of ZipRecruiter and author of Get Hired Now!: How to Accelerate Your Job Search, Stand Out, and Land Your Next Great Opportunity, highlights some of the pressures — and advantages — of interviewing remotely: “Multiple different research studies have shown that in the first 20 seconds of an in-person interview, your interviewer will leap to multiple conclusions about you that will be almost impossible to change their mind on once they've reached them,” Siegel says. “On video interviews, you get one second.”

This might sound discouraging, but there is an upside: According to Siegel, you have complete control over that first second. There are three fundamental elements of an interviewee’s presentation that can be controlled, the first one being the camera angle. “Prop it up on books or wood blocks or whatever you've got," Siegel suggests, "but make sure that camera's at eye level because it's going to make it feel like they're looking you in the eye.” 

The second element is the background, and Siegel emphasizes the importance of a clean, mess-free backdrop. Melissa Nightingale, the cofounder of Raw Signal Group, an organization that offers management and leadership training, adds that interviewees should be at ease in the environment they have created. “Mak[e] sure you are comfortable with the setup and feeling like you're putting your most and best professional foot forward for that call,” she says.

The third and last element Siegel addresses is attire: “Unfortunately, there has been repeated, demonstrated bias that is significant in what people are wearing,” he says. “Just come on there, looking good with a clean background and at eye level, and you've got a great start going on your video interview.” 

“Become a networking ninja,” even remotely

According to Jill Tipograph, co-founder of Early Stage Careers, a coaching service focused on helping young people successfully launch their careers, all job-seekers should “become networking ninjas.” Tipograph continues, “Understand [that networking] is a lifelong necessity — personally, professionally, and socially. Become comfortable with the uncomfortable. People who are engaged live longer.”

Networking does not always lead directly to a job interview; sometimes, it can simply be explorative. Tipograph breaks down networking into three categories: academic, passion, and aspiration. Of academic networking, Tipograph says, “Professors have proven to be strong connecting resources, career influencers, and mentors. It is harder now, but make [it a] point to connect, learn about them — even offer to help them once you learn more about their needs.”

Passion networking involves interests and hobbies and entails reaching out to contacts from school and even childhood to further discuss shared interests and remain in touch. Aspiration-based networking includes finding people whose career paths inspire you, reaching out to them to discuss their journeys, and following experts on social media to hear their advice.

According to Tipograph, those who have graduated in the past decade are most receptive to outreach. “They are close enough to your job search, likely were impacted by the last recession in their job search, and are close to those hiring more entry-level roles,” she explains. “People are craving human connectivity now and maybe more emotionally interested in networking with you.”

Johnathan Nightingale, Melissa’s husband, fellow co-founder of Raw Signal Group, and a self-professed introvert, emphasizes the importance of getting one-on-one time with those already in your orbit. “That crew of people that are starting at the same time as you — I would reach out to them,” he says. “Even if it's just, ‘Hey, we're starting at the same time. Everything's weird during COVID. Can we find some time to talk to each other and just compare notes and stuff once a month, to sort of being in each other's corner?’”

When it comes to reaching out to those outside your orbit, such as higher-ups, he says, “If you reach out to them with the generic, ‘Hey, can I get some time with you? I just want to understand how you see things,’ their shields are going to be way on. Everybody's a missing connection, but everybody's also fried.”

Instead of reaching out with a generic request, Johnathan Nightingale encourages those looking to network to develop a specific and informed opening line, such as “I thought this thing that you said was really interesting and I was wondering if I could have 15 minutes to ask you some more questions about it.” He estimates that “you're actually going to get more yeses than you would pre-COVID.”

Always say “thank you”

Whether it’s a networking meeting or a job interview, the experts Teen Vogue spoke to agree: Thank-you notes are mandatory. “Say thank you to everyone who helps you along the way,” Tipograph says. “It takes a village to get hired; make a point to thank each person who helped in the smallest to largest way. They will remember, and, importantly, they will remember if you do not thank them.”

Siegel estimates that less than half of interviewees send a thank-you note. “It's an easy, awesome way to stand out. You should 100% of the time send a thank-you note after you do an interview,” he says. “If you really want to get extra credit, one of the tactics I recommend is telling [ing] them you're even more excited about the job after meeting your interviewer. You were already excited about the job, but meeting the interviewer increased your enthusiasm for this job.”

Johnathan Nightingale points out, though, there is some dispute over what thank-you notes should look like. “We talked to bosses who [say], ‘Oh if I don't get a handwritten thank-you note, I'm not considering you.’ And then we talked to other bosses who [say], ‘This isn't the 1870s. I don't need one of those.’” To determine what is best for a specific industry, he recommends, get advice from someone in your field to discuss best practices.

Your digital footprint could cost you the job

Siegel says he wants his 17-year-old daughter to be careful about what she posts on social media as she enters the job market. “Fifty percent of employers who were surveyed by Career Builder have disqualified candidates based on something they found on their social media profiles after the candidate had applied,” he reports, referring to a 2018 survey done by the company.

Tipograph corroborates the importance of this lesson: “Clean up your social media; do an online health check. Make sure your presence is pristine — are you putting your best self forward?”

“Write your résumé like a caveman”

“The truth is that in the modern job market there are two sets of robots,” Siegel explains. “One of them exists on job sites and the second one exists in something called applicant-tracking systems, where after you apply to a job, it's the system you go into before employers review you. There are robots that read your résumé before humans do. Your whole goal with a résumé is to get past the robots.”

The key to getting a résumé past the screening process is to “write like a caveman,” he says. In other words, résumés are written in the simplest way possible, curt sentences, make it past the initial software screening, increasing the chances of getting picked up by a human.

Not only is writing style more important than ever, but standards for content have changed. Siegel says that many modern employers emphasize emotional intelligence over IQ. Employers are looking for trainability, sociability, timeliness, and a positive attitude. This might be demonstrable through years of experience and glowing letters of recommendation, but it might be more difficult for those just starting the job search. Siegel encourages those seeking entry-level positions to include on their résumé something they have mastered or that demonstrates responsibility, such as serving as captain of a sports team, leader of a student organization, camp counselor, or babysitter.

Prepare for reopening ahead of time

People in all sectors having trouble getting hired full-time can take this time to focus on increasing their skills and building their résumés. “It really behooves people right now to be considering education and skills training, because there's a lot of jobs that are open right now if you have even a single specialized skill,” Siegel says. “You can learn to work a 3D printer, you can learn how to write SQL queries to become a data scientist.”

According to a study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the cultural and creative sectors are among those hit the hardest by the pandemic. For those in creative industries, Tipograph recommends they focus on three things if unable to find full-time work: Create personal projects, find opportunities to advance their skills, and pay it forward.

Personal projects can help creative individuals build up their portfolios so they can be adequately prepared when applying for jobs in the future. Opportunities for skill advancement can include pro-bono projects for friends and help establish contacts who can comment on your work on LinkedIn, allowing for increased recognition and further increasing portfolio content. Finally, paying it forward includes teaching the craft to others — whether paid or unpaid.