The long Covid of careers

Covid casts a long shadow over lives. As we are discovering, the condition can persist for months or, as we may yet discover, possibly years. It also casts a shadow of grief over those who have lost – or will lose – those they love. But even those who, thankfully, have never been infected may yet find their lives have been blighted for years or even decades by this pandemic’s other long-term wasting effects.

The labour market has rarely looked worse for young people and emerging from education into a recession can handicap a whole career. At first there are no jobs and, by the time there are, there’s another generation coming into bloom, fresh out of school or university, unwilted by months or years of unemployment.

So what can young people do for their careers that’s the equivalent of hand-washing and mask-wearing? I was asked this recently in an interview on BBC London, but of course, there was only time for a few words, so I thought I’d share my six tips in more detail.

1. Take cover

The outlook for graduates is not great at the moment, but it’s even worse for non-graduates. School-leavers should think about university, further education or training and graduates should consider postgraduate study. In effect you’re hiding from the storm until it blows over, but you’re also getting yourself fitter for when it has.

2. Keep trying

There may be fewer employers out there who want and need your skills, but there are still some. It only takes one and each rejection should be seen as one step closer because you are getting more information each time about what you have to offer that’s valuable and how best to show it.

In fact, ‘rejection’ should never mean dejection . From the employers’ point of view, they may have hundreds of applicants, but only one job to offer. Even if a hundred people might have been right for the job, still only one can get it.

Remember, you may be more than good enough for every job you apply for and a rejection should never be taken as anything other than that, for whatever reason, you weren’t the right match on this occasion.

Do try to find out those reasons though. If you get beyond the standard letter first-stage rejection – particularly if you get as far as an interview – ask for feedback. Most of the time you’ll get a standard reply, but the one time you don’t may give you a huge advantage for your next time.

It’s hard to maintain your resilience and self-esteem when you can’t find work, but it helps to know that your turn is coming and each application – even each rejection – is taking you closer.  

Rejection should never mean dejection.

3. Join the Kickstart scheme

If you’re 18-24, on Universal Credit and living in England, Scotland or Wales, you may well be eligible to join the government’s Kickstart Scheme.

This allows employers to take you on at pretty much no cost to them for a six-month placement. (In fact the employer gets £1,500 towards training you and the cost of employing you). The government will give the employer money to pay you at minimum wage for 25 hours a week for up to six months. The employer can choose to pay you more or employ you for more hours at their own expense.

Your Job Centre can put you forward for opportunities or an employer can recruit you and put you on the scheme if you’re eligible. You can even approach an employer you want to work for and try suggesting it. There’s very little for them to lose by taking you on. The only catch for the employer is that they have to take on 30 people, which only big firms can do. They can, however, go through one of many of the intermediary firms that are grouping smaller companies together to get at least 30 between them.

In both the organisations I run, we are looking to take on some Kickstart trainees and I’m putting together a package of training and experience that I hope will be really worthwhile. Let me know if you think you might be eligible and I’d be happy to consider you. (I’m sorry to say that, if you aren’t eligible, I really have no vacancies right now.)

4. Put yourself out there

I don’t normally advocate working for free – your time and labour are valuable – not least because you should at least have your expenses compensated for work experience. However, if you’re doing work experience remotely, you probably don’t have many additional expenses.

Put yourself out there by approaching the kind of companies you might want to work for and offering to take on the kind of jobs they’ve got no one to do right now, because either everyone is furloughed or because everyone is running to stand still.

You can offer administrative support. You can offer to write internal or external communications. You can ask them if they want any of the Zoom webinars that they may be holding or attending to be minuted or written up into summaries. And so on. They’ve not got much to lose if you’re offering to do stuff that otherwise wouldn’t get done and if you don’t create more work for them by offering to do it. 

5. Get creative

Even in the midst of Covid, there are opportunities for you to set up your own business.

To take two examples: I know a guy who started buying second-hand bikes at the start of lockdown, giving them a service and then selling them on. Demand was so high that he managed to make over £3k profit in just a couple of months.

Someone else offered to help neighbours who were doing lockdown clear-outs to sell their old junk on eBay in exchange for a cut of the profit. She needed no start-up capital, just time and an internet connection. Her bedroom was full of boxes of other people’s stuff.

These may not be opportunities for you, but they show that they are ways to make a business out of the things people need right now because their needs and behaviour have been forced to change.  

6. Use your time well

You need to look after your mental well-being as well as your employability. Maintain a routine and do useful things. Things that keep you happy and healthy are useful, so long as they aren’t short-term fixes.

Develop your transferable skills. Extend your contact base (by improving your professional social media presences). Grow your understanding of the sector you want to get into. 

7. Consider jobs that aren’t part of your career plan

Whether it’s being a Deliveroo driver, a Track & Trace caller or a security guard, there may be jobs you believe you could get and do well, but you don’t want to because they’re nothing like what you want to do, you won’t earn much and they’ll just take you on a path you don’t want to go down.

Only you can decide whether the trade-off is worth it. It depends on how long you feel you can go without an earned income, how competitive is the sector you want to get into, how bad the alternative seems to you and so on. That said, knowing that you’re working can get you out of a rut for your career, your finances and, perhaps most of all, your sense of self-worth.

What’s more, a gap on your CV is something that will always raise a question in an employer’s mind. They won’t rule you out for it, but they may want to hear how you filled it.

Set yourself a time limit so that the job you took to get out of a rut doesn’t become a whole new rut.

Taking the ‘wrong job’, can look like you’re not committed to the sector you actually do want or it can look like you knuckled down when you needed to and you gathered skills and experience wherever you could. You can certainly present your experiences that way and show the transferable skills you collected in the process.

Set yourself a time limit so that the job you took to get out of a rut doesn’t become a whole new rut. So make an appointment with yourself in, say, six months and, when you get to that point, if you’re still there, but don’t want to be, allow yourself maybe six weeks to find something new. If you don’t, you can just walk. Accept it may take a while to get something better, but doing so is now your full-time job. Try to save money in the meantime to give yourself more options.

Who knows, though? You may just discover that trying something a little off the beaten career path teaches you a thing or two about what you really do want.

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