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3 Things College Grads can Do to Compete in a Post-Pandemic Economy
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The college class of 2020 graduated into one of the worst economies ever — but they’re not the only ones who will face a tough job market. The pandemic recession has shifted the employment outlook for recent college grads, perhaps, for many years to come.

That's one of the main takeaways of a new report from Burning Glass Technologies, a labor market analytics firm.

The report authors found that the pool of entry-level jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree shrunk by 40% between March and May last year, while those requiring a high school diploma only decreased by 25%. Although numbers have improved, entry-level job postings at the bachelor’s level remain almost 12% lower compared to January last year. This decline, combined with the millions of unemployed — and more experienced — Americans looking to rejoin the workforce, has created a fiercely competitive and tough job market for recent grads.

If you’re fresh out of school or approaching graduation, you may feel tempted to take whatever job you can find and wait until things improve. But that can also backfire. College grads who are underemployed in their first job are five times more likely to remain that way five years later, according to previous research from Burning Glass and the Strada Institute for the Future of Work.

So, how can you boost your chances of getting a regular paycheck in a post-pandemic economy, while making sure it’s not a job that will tank your long-term career goals? Here’s what the report authors suggest.

Take Inventory of Your Skills

One of the key findings from the report is that the post-pandemic job market is all about the skills you have. That’s not to say that your choice of major won’t impact the number of jobs that will be available to you, of course. But employers are far more interested in knowing what skills you acquired as part of your degree, and how they can be transferred to the position they’re trying to fill.

Burning Glass’ data show that there are a total of 14 foundational skills that are in high demand among employers. These are a combination of digital, business and human, or “soft,” skills.They include critical thinking, communication, collaboration, data management and analysis, project management, and digital design.

Matt Sigelman, co-author of the report and CEO of Burning Glass Technologies, says that what makes these skills foundational is that they are “timeless,” and they’re essential to performing millions of jobs in virtually every line of work.

He also points out that having a skill set spanning across these three main categories will not only increase your chances of getting hired but also create greater career mobility for you.

The challenge, however, is learning how to identify those skills and translate them into a professional setting.

Adam Weinberg, president of Denison University, says that students usually have more skills than they realize and that the failure to communicate those effectively is what costs them many job opportunities.

“Employers are often surprised by how college students undersell everything they've learned throughout undergraduate years,” he adds.

Sigelman says that one way to avoid underselling your skills is by “working backwards.” Instead of thinking about what your goals are and what interests you, it’s better to research careers that can line up with what you’ve been learning so far.

For example, if you’re a visual and performing arts major, you probably learned the basic principles of graphic design and how to use graphic design software, such as those belonging to the Adobe suite. If you search for careers that use some of those skills, the position of “web designer” will probably pop up multiple times, according to Burning Glass’ data.

So, once you’ve identified what are some of the careers that align with your background, Sigelman says that the next step is to research those job listings and see what other skills employers are requesting to determine whether it would be a good fit for you.

“In a lot of cases, students are gonna say, ‘Wait a second, I know that,’” Sigelman says. So, then the key is to make sure you incorporate that as part of your resume or cover letter in a language that employers can understand.

Focus on “Target” or “Lifeboat” Occupations

Students tend to have a limited perspective on the number and types of jobs that are available. They may be able to broaden their professional horizons by thinking about what the authors dub as "target" and "lifeboat" occupations.

Target occupations are well-paying jobs that are in high demand. These jobs require a bachelor’s degree to get hired but are often overlooked by students.

If you majored in social sciences, for instance, the thought of working as an insurance sales agent or as a personal financial advisor has probably never crossed your mind. But there’s a high demand for applicants with this type of background for both of these entry-level target occupations, according to the report, and you could be earning between $46,900 and $53,430.

Lifeboat occupations don’t necessarily require a bachelor’s degree, but they’re not dead-end jobs, either. You should view them as stepping stones, Sigelman says. Lifeboat occupations typically offer higher-than-average starting salaries and allow you to develop the fundamental skills needed to transition into a higher-paying role that does require a bachelor’s degree.

For example, the authors write that you don’t need a bachelor’s degree to land a job as a computer user support specialist. Still, you could be earning $55,000 (the average salary for this position) and gain the necessary skills to get a job as a network and computer system administrator — which does require a degree — and earns an average salary of $87,000 a year.

Build Up Your Resume

A lot of people choose to go back to school during economic downturns not only to build new skills but also hoping that the job market will be better once they graduate. Yet pursuing a graduate degree can take an average of two years, and it can cost you thousands of dollars.

Noncredit courses and certificate programs can be a cheaper and quicker alternative to grad school. You can find these at local community colleges, universities and online learning platforms, such as Coursera or Edx.

Weinberg, from Denison University, says that these “last mile” programs, as he calls them, can quickly close the skill gap between what you learned throughout your undergraduate education and what you need to get that first job. But you shouldn’t choose these at random, he says.

In order for these to serve their intended purpose, you must learn a skill that aligns with your desired career or target industry. This is why Weinberg recommends scanning multiple job listings that pique your interest and taking notes of what skills you could learn to increase your chances of getting hired by those employers.

Internships can also be a great way to explore and work on your skills and gain professional experience, plus earn a few bucks — if you can land a paid one. Although a great number of them are reserved for undergraduate students, plenty of companies, including government agencies, expand these opportunities to recent grads.

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