The New Gap Year? Why the Class of 2020 Needs a Marketing Makeover

Photo by Hello I'm Nik 🎞 on Unsplash

I’m typically not shy about sharing my opinions and advice. But when my 21-year-old niece — a graduating senior from Ithaca College who is spending the last of what should have been her season of job fairs, internships, and new beginnings in lockdown — asked my advice on how to network from her living room, I had to pause. Is this the moment to be reaching out to strangers for career advice or seeking a mentor for guidance? Is personal branding during COVID-19 opportunistic — offensive even?

The Class of 2020 was gearing up to take its first steps down chosen career paths into the limitless future those shiny diplomas were supposed to promise, but this spring has proven a washout. With unemployment rivaling Great Depression-era highs and layoffs and furloughs rampant, job prospects look grim.

Instead of getting lost in the loss, there are steps new college grads can take to boost their employability and make the best of their lockdowns.

Matthijs van Wijck, who graduated from Maastricht University’s Faculty of Law in the Netherlands in January, saw his future put on hold. He had planned to travel to Montreal in early April to marry his boyfriend. That was before planes were grounded and travel screeched to a halt. Now he’s quarantining with his parents while deciding next steps.

“A lot of my friends who just graduated thought we’d be entering a good job market,” he says. “But now we’re the Corona Generation and might not be able to find a job for the next five years.”

He hasn’t yet started to panic, but if things don’t change in the next six months, he fears it will set in. To keep his mind engaged and spirits high, he’s started to take online courses and develop new areas of expertise.

It’s good to have options.

Dr. Jessie Koen, an organizational psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, says those engaging in proactive career behaviors are more likely to increase their chances of gaining better employment with more satisfaction, higher salaries, and promotions. While graduating seniors could be forgiven for hiding under the covers, binging on nachos and Netflix, networking is essential.

“Insecurity takes up a lot of cognitive space,” says Koen. By actively working to chart their professional courses, graduates will do better now and later. And, she says, would-be workforce entrants need to focus on now and not where they want to be in five years. With so much global uncertainty, it’s too abstract to think that far ahead.

Ayden Galeh, who graduated from the EPF School of Engineering outside Paris during the 2008 financial crisis with a degree in supply chain logistics , knows something about that. He never expected to leave his girlfriend and native city behind to take a project manager position at KLM Cargo in Amsterdam. While he hated the three years he spent in a dirty, windowless warehouse, he’s grateful for the lessons learned.

“In those days, you took what you could get without any negotiations,” he says. “But it helped me realize what I didn’t want: a job in supply chain logistics.” Galeh moved into the digital domain of the industry, creating track-and-trace apps, and today he’s co-founder of eeco, an online platform that lets people track and offset their carbon footprints.

Networking, he says, is even more essential during tough times. Happily, in this almost exclusively virtual world, this tech generation knows how to navigate and can lead the way. They can draw on that strength, which is just what companies — many with entire workforces working remotely — need now.

Developing skills beyond their majors and minors is going to prove critical to graduates fighting a nasty war against an unseen and formidable adversary. When times are tough, having a diverse set of skills is currency. Broadcasting those skills on personal web pages or social platforms such as LinkedIn should be amped up, not ratcheted down.

Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Jason Oberholtzer agrees. Now an entrepreneur who is part of innovation guidance firm Gather, he graduated from Hamilton College in 2008 with a major in comparative literature and a minor in music. “My job prospects were murky enough to begin with, and then Lehman Brothers collapsed.”

With few opportunities, Oberholtzer says he “weaponized” his hobbies to earn money while accepting unpaid internships to maintain connections, learn on the job, and network. Piano and guitar lessons paid the bills, supplemented by the blogging, social media, and ghostwriting gigs he could find.

He’s continued to professionalize his hobbies during his career, including turning his living-room podcast obsession into a company that produces high-quality content for brands big and small.

Dream jobs might be immediately elusive to 2020 grads but monetizing one’s interests and maintaining exposure through social channels will prove beneficial throughout one’s career. So will the tough lessons that come from being forced to turbocharge self-advocacy. The Class of 2020 may be facing career challenges unlike any graduating class before them, but they’re likely going to be more adaptable and self-reliant as a result.

A few other pieces of advice:

  • If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, now’s the time to use it. Create that business you think the world needs.
  • Maybe it’s time to rethink your career path. Has a job in the healthcare profession become more appealing than working as a tax consultant?
  • Be an employment visionary. Work will look different. Think how and where you could fit in. Maybe you’d be unlikely to thrive in the traditional model, the limits of which are increasingly clear. Create the job you want and convince business leaders they need you. No training required.
  • Project your voice. Consider publishing thought leadership content on your social channels.

This is a new type of gap year (or gap months, one hopes), but enterprising grads can fill the void and make it count.

Soon after I placed a LinkedIn appeal for advice for my niece, a link to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech to the Class of 1932 popped up in my feed.

“Yours is not the task of making your way in the world, but the task of remaking the world which you will find before you,” said FDR.

Amen to that. By reinventing themselves, the Class of 2020 might just reinvent the job market, leaving a leveler and more relevant playing field for future graduating classes.

Fingers crossed.

SVP Global Communications at Philip Morris International — award-winning PR and marketing professional, author and trendspotter — popularized “metrosexual.”

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