Class of 2020 college grads faces a tough pandemic-era job market. Local colleges are trying to amp up job search support.

    When Emily Baer’s diploma from Lake Forest College arrived in the mail last week, she was among the legions of 2020 grads whose traditional commencement ceremonies had been scuttled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

    But despite disappointment that the final chapter of her college experience was limited to online classes and virtual gatherings, support and guidance from Baer’s professors and advisors are helping her navigate a job search in an era fraught with unprecedented challenges.

    “From the first week our classes went online, our professors would take some time to check in with us each day, to make sure we get what we need,” said Baer, 22, of Morton Grove.

    Baer, who received a bachelor’s degree in business with a concentration in marketing, was recently hired on a contract to work part-time for the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management.

    “They’ve connected us with a lot of recruiters, but it’s definitely a lot harder for graduates to do a job search right now,” Baer said.

    Well aware of the immense economic hardships posed by the pandemic, officials at suburban Chicago colleges and universities say they are stepping up their efforts this summer to support recent graduates with a slate of new programs.

    From mentoring and career counseling to teletherapy and specialized certificate programs, officials at suburban colleges say their smaller class sizes and personalized attention has allowed them to establish stronger ties to students in a tough job market.

    “We knew this year would be a challenging one for our graduates and that we needed to pivot strategically to help our seniors meet that challenge,” said Colleen Monks, Lake Forest College’s Director for the Career Advancement Center.

    Monks said officials adapted their spring and summer programming plans, “to focus on engaging our network of Foresters and using our combined resources to get the Class of 2020 ready for a very different kind of job market.”

    Among the college’s new initiatives is a program that has matched 128 seniors with alumni or trustees to provide them with support and career advice, and in some cases, job referrals, officials said.

    Nearly half of the Class of 2020 have already participated in one or more of the programs, officials said.

    Harper College officials said the college’s personal and career counseling services are available to graduates, including virtual tele-therapy.
    Harper College officials said the college’s personal and career counseling services are available to graduates, including virtual tele-therapy. (Brian OMahoney / Pioneer Press)

    The roughly 3,300 recent graduates at Harper College in Palatine are also getting a boost with new virtual career counseling programs designed to provide guidance and to connect students with area companies that are hiring.

    “There are jobs available, and they might not be that perfect job for your major, but it’s better to be working rather than sitting back, waiting until the pandemic is over,” said Kathleen Canfield, the director of Harper’s Job Placement Resource Center.

    Recent grads are also getting help in developing the skills and strategies needed to shine and succeed in a virtual job interview, Canfield said.

    “We’re teaching students how to prepare for a live video interview, like setting up the needed technology, making sure your background does not look cluttered, and reminding them they still need to dress professionally,” Canfield said.

    Megan Dallianis, Harper’s director of new student programs, said the college’s personal and career counseling services are also available to graduates, including virtual teletherapy.

    “Even though the job opportunities might look different right now, they’re still out there, and our students and graduates should take this opportunity to think about their growth and development and use this time to strengthen their skills,” Dallianis said.

    In addition to full-time jobs for recent graduates, many spring and summer internships came to a halt mid-program or were canceled before the summer began due to the pandemic.

    To remedy this, career officials at Elmhurst University said they encouraged employers to adjust their internship programs to offer remote opportunities and worked with students to find alternative assignments where needed.

    “Nobody fell through the cracks,” said Martin Gahbauer, executive director of the Russell G. Weigand Center for Professional Excellence.

    The career center also created a virtual job search boot camp in April to help students navigate a pandemic-era job market. With the help of a career coach, students built professional brands, learned how to network effectively, and practiced job interviews.

    “In a few short weeks we reconfigured everything we do to make sure that students can keep learning and growing,” Gahbauer said.

    Outside the career center, Gahbauer has also been working on a new entrepreneurship initiative on campus that begins in the spring semester and, like everything else, was quickly forced online. He said it’s a growing trend among students and may grow even more popular due to the pandemic.

    “Some students may view that as an even stronger option now than they may have in the past,” he said. “So much of it depends on what happens with the economy.”

    Oakton Community College is offering new certificate programs in fields including manufacturing, COVID-19 contact tracing and the cannabis industry, officials said.
    Oakton Community College is offering new certificate programs in fields including manufacturing, COVID-19 contact tracing, and the cannabis industry, officials said. (Jennifer Johnson/Pioneer Press / / Chicago Tribune)

    Officials at Oakton Community College, which has campuses in Des Plaines and Skokie, said they are hopeful their career development services and a slate of new certificate programs might provide a professional lifeline for both new students and recent graduates looking to expand their skill set.

    “Connecting and networking is looking a little different because it’s all virtual right now, but the feedback our students and graduates are getting is still good information that is relevant,” said Sebastian Contreras, Oakton’s Dean of Student Success.

    Contreras said the college’s new certificate programs in fields including manufacturing, COVID-19 contact tracing, and the cannabis industry, provides another opportunity for launching a career in burgeoning fields that are in need of employees.

    Jacqueline Gordon, assistant director of Career Services at Triton College in River Grove, said she tries to remain positive when talking to students. She encourages them to use their extra free time to build new skills and to take advantage of the virtual nature of the world by attending workshops and networking events online.

    “Job seekers, in general, have been worried, as all of us have been anxious about everything going on,” she said. “We keep that in mind when we counsel our students, understanding that it is hard.”

    Triton hasn’t added any new programming in light of the pandemic, but Gordon said the career services department added its workshops and presentations to its website to give students more useful tools.

    “Because of everything going virtual, we want students to have easier access to information,” Gordon said.

    Triton is a community college, Gordon said, so it serves young students as well as non-traditional students who may be older or switching careers. She said she has seen some non-traditional students have to pause their job search or stay in their current jobs because of the needs of their family.

    That wasn’t the case for Caroline Dudkowski of Libertyville, though. Dudkowski, 44, used to work in the pharmaceutical industry as a scientist but decided in 2018 that she wanted to shift careers. She finished her technical communication certificate through the College of Lake County, another suburban community college in Grayslake, in May.

    “Luckily this was several years in the making,” she said. “I don’t know if I would make such a drastic decision at this point.”

    Dudkowski said she’s fortunate to have had a remote, part-time job for the past year, especially when the pandemic hit, but she’s still looking for a job in the technical communication area.

    The ideal summer internship she interviewed for in March ended up getting canceled. For now, she has widened the net in her job search and is working on networking.

    “Looking for a job is not the most fun even under the best of circumstances,” she said. “That hasn’t changed too much, but I do have some optimism.”

    Dudkowski has worked with the College of Lake County career specialist Jerry Donahue throughout her certificate program. As she continues her job search, she said she’s been encouraged to keep networking.

    In addition to virtual resume advice, interview preparation, and Zoom workshops, Donahue and other career services officials are planning a virtual job fair this fall for manufacturing students.

    “We want to reconvert all the things we do with students to be remote,” he said.

    Donahue said he’s noticed more involvement in the programming, perhaps because of the accessibility of everything being offered online.

    Still, he said career services remain overlooked by many students and can be especially helpful now as they face the uncertain job market ahead of them.

    “We have connections with employers,” he said. “That’s part of our job. We can help (students) with their search questions, directions, materials so they can be competitive in the marketplace.”