February 6, 2021
Given the change of course that has happened in the world, we wanted to provide expert opinions on what aspiring graduates can do to start off their careers in an uncertain economic climate. We wanted to know what skills will be more important, where the economy is doing relatively well, and if there will be any lasting effects on the job market.
Companies are looking for candidates that can handle the new responsibilities of the job market. Recent graduates actually have an advantage because they are comfortable using newer technologies and have been communicating virtually their whole lives. They can take what they've learned and apply it immediately.
We spoke to professors and experts from several universities and companies to get their opinions on where the job market for recent graduates is heading, as well as how young graduates entering the industry can be adequately prepared. Here are their thoughts.
University of Puerto Rico-RP
College of Natural Sciences-CIAMWebsite
Elvia Melendez-Ackerman Ph.D.: An unwritten rule is that the more marketable college graduates not only finish with an appropriate selection of content courses but also with a myriad of hands-on experiences where the student has had the opportunity to develop and strengthen scientific and technical skills, but just as important are the soft skills expected in their chosen profession. Many of these hands-on experiences occur off campus and indeed these are highly encouraged by academic advisors. For most students graduating after 2020, the pandemic reduced the number of opportunities in which they engaged in these types of activities, reducing their number of hours spent in "job-like" settings. It is in these settings where students can develop and demonstrate their leadership, teamwork and, organizational skills and, their ability to get the job done.
Because these off-campus experiences are carried out under supervision, they become important sources of letters of recommendations for employment from experts that truly know how they can perform under different situations. In the short-term, COVID-19 and events with similar outcomes (i.e.. shutdown of educational facilities) could be viewed as a selective factor that would favor those students that engaged early in their undergraduate degree in complementary activities (i.e., internships, volunteer work in research projects, research for credit, etc.). Within that context, shutdowns related to the pandemic might have impacted job preparedness of students from different socio-economic backgrounds differently. For those students that needed to work to pay for college, engaging early in ancillary professional activities might not have been an option. Socio-economic disparities in terms of access to technology (good computer, high speed internet) may have also led to unequal learning experiences. I taught a course in drone technologies where we managed to purchase GIS software licenses to allow students to work on simple spatial analyses remotely, but some students just did not have the computing capacity to operate these at home and ended up having to watch others.
For employers looking to hire recent college graduates that can do reliable fieldwork and perform well under fieldwork conditions (e.g., research areas related to environmental, social, or social-environmental work), the pool of experienced students would now be reduced. At the same time, college graduates will have a tougher time accruing the much-needed experience time that will make them competitive.
Elvia Melendez-Ackerman Ph.D.: Getting a job is all about skills. Any science major who is seriously thinking about becoming a researcher is expected to have good skills in data analysis, modelling and visualization, statistical skills (spatial and temporal). In short, they are required to have fundamental data skills to conduct research. This is particularly true for any graduate in Environmental Sciences where an immense amount of data is generated by so many organizations and agencies around the world. Most jobs list these stills as a must, but some even require that students be proficient in a computing language (R, Python, etc.).
There are indeed many online courses, certifications (on computer languages like R, Python or software such as ArcGIS) and resources available that students could take advantage of especially during these pandemic times. These skills require practice and time, but the advantage is that they allow for conducting certain aspects of research remotely in ways that can advance anyone's career. These skills indeed can not only expand the career mobility of prospective hires but also give them a better chance to fit in interdisciplinary groups.
Elvia Melendez-Ackerman Ph.D.: To me the following are almost universal. College graduates should be responsible, reliable, have good organizational skills, great capacity work both in groups and independently. Ideally a college graduate shows good leadership, communication, and problem-solving abilities. These last three often appear as requirements in job applications, but even if unlisted you better believe that a prospective employer is looking for those skills when reviewing an application. The pandemic brought to the forefront the importance of communication skills (written and oral) and the importance of networking especially in their professional environments. It has also shifted the ways in which communication needs to be conducted in workplaces. Understanding and becoming proficient in these new communication strategies is more desirable than ever.