Why the class of COVID-19 is more prepared for the workforce than previous graduating classes

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As the class of 2020 hits the job market, there may be questions about whether or not the graduating class is ready for the pandemic-driven workplace. We’ve never had “real” jobs—let alone jobs that have been totally upended by social distancing and a tanking economy.

I’m here to tell you: we’re prepared.

I spent my last semester of college taking classes from an empty bedroom I’d relocated to on a very deserted campus. And in doing so, I was forced to learn skills that no other recent graduating class had their first day on the job.

Communication: we’re not your standard long-winded college students

Woman's hands typing

Learning how to write concisely doesn’t come easily, especially after spending years writing 10-page papers. We go from figuring out how to add words to reach word counts to…actually needing to communicate.

When you live on campus and everything and everyone you need is within walking distance, in-person communication is the default, at least when it comes to professional stuff. Classes are in person, office hours are in person, presentations are in person.

Even pre-pandemic, professional communication is largely written. Teams communicate via chat tools, emails are the primary means of communicating with clients and partners: in-person isn’t the go-to. When recent college graduates join the workforce, the need to communicate—really communicate—in writing is a challenge. But the class of COVID-19, and the for you in future few graduating classes, have already had time to hone this skill.

Same goes for other professional communications. In a live classroom, it usually goes like this: raise your hand, get called on, say something. Even in a small discussion group, you have the physical cues of when and how to communicate. But when you’re pitching a client or negotiating with a potential partner, or anything in between, you’re doing it virtually.

Being professional over Zoom means something completely different from being professional in person—and that’s something we learned before awkwardly interrupting an important client on a call. It might seem trivial, but it’s a key part of active listening that will help us make good team players right off the bat.

Managing up: we’re not your standard clueless college students

Schools had little-to-no time to prepare for the pivot to distance learning. At UC Santa Cruz, where I was, there was only one week of preparation, during our spring break, where our professors and TAs could shift their entire curriculum to a remote one. They did an amazing job, but it was less than smooth.

Professors who’d never taught online were suddenly in charge of giving remote lectures, facilitating remote discussions, and developing assignments that students could complete wherever they were. And that put us, as students, in the position of helping coach and reassure our professors.

When they would struggle to get their presentation running correctly or not be able to access a certain feature of an app, students would flood the chat with helpful instructions. If an assignment wasn’t going well, we learned how to give constructive reaction to the people who held our graduation fate in their hands. And we anticipated what problems might arise and tried to nip them in the bud before they derailed an entire class session. Of course, each of our professors and TAs handled the challenge differently. We learned to understand what was stressing them out and how we could behave and interact with them in a way that would benefit everyone.

Usually, most college professors are in control—they’re teaching a version of the same curriculum they’ve been teaching for years, and many of them have been doing it for decades. But with the sudden change, they were in a new boat as much as we were. We learned to manage up in a way that will help us navigate the relationship with our bosses in our first post-grad jobs.

Adaptability: we’re not your standard know-it-all college students

Image of a student watching graduation on TV

Ok, we might be a little know-it-all. We’re Gen Z, after all.

But we spent our last semester of college—which was supposed to be filled with celebrations and last hurrahs—doing…not those things.

Instead of hanging with our friends, we were emailing our professors for the fifth time that day because we were confused about a post on Canvas. And it wasn’t just technological issues—though stumbling while trying to share my screen for a presentation in poetry class was less than ideal. We had internships and job offers rescinded. Graduation was canceled. We had to condense our entire academic lives onto our computers and adapt to a new routine that involved completing our education while also living through a pandemic.

But we adapted—and quickly. We were resourceful and did the best we could under the circumstances. Work study students had to find replacement jobs in their hometowns. I had friends who changed their plans from internships to coding camps, determined to still have something on their resume that would help their job prospects. And other students volunteered their time, knowing that there just wasn’t a way to land a paying gig.

Everyone has had to adapt this year—and college students surely didn’t have as much to deal with as many other folks. But the sudden change forced us to give up any sense of college student entitlement good and quick. That, in and of itself, will help us be better colleagues and employees from the start.

Let me be clear: I know I’m not a seasoned employee. I know I have a lot to learn. But the class of 2020 enters the workforce with good workplace habits already forming. Soft skills, like communication, adaptability, and the ability to manage up, are highly valued in the workplace. We’ve already picked up so many skills that previous graduates have had to pick up on the job. They’re what got us through our last semester of college, but they’re also what will help us excel in the workforce.

Hero image by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash. Virtual graduation photo by Mohammad Shahhosseini on Unsplash.

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