From Professor Nick Klomp, CQUniversity Vice-Chancellor and President, and Anna Bounds, Higher Education and Organisational Development Consultant.
A few years ago, you and approximately a quarter of a million other Australian adults bit the bullet and saddled yourselves with debt, stress and study burdens with one simple goal in mind – to graduate into the workforce with a life-changing university qualification by the end of 2020.
Back when you first enrolled at university, the world was far less strange. Unemployment was low and falling, graduate employment rates and starting salaries were high, and the economy was ticking along confidently. Commencing a Diploma, Bachelor’s Degree, or a PhD made perfect sense at the time. Now with the finish line of your study journey finally within sight, the world has been completely tipped on its head by COVID-19. Economists have acknowledged Australia is entering its first recession in nearly 30 years, characterised by the largest domestic economic contraction since the Great Depression. Entire industries have laid off workers and gone into hibernation. Our Treasury is predicting the unemployment rate to double to 10 per cent later this year. There is a generation of Australians not yet born who, for decades to come, will be repaying the national debt incurred by our present-day response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Let’s not sugar coat it – you are about to graduate into a perfect storm of global recession, workforce downturn and job insecurity. Nobody can predict how this will impact upon your entry (or re-entry) into the workforce, because we’ve never seen a worldwide confluence of crisis variables quite like this before. Feeling apprehensive about your future is perhaps the most normal response under the circumstances. But that doesn’t mean you should feel helpless. Far from it – there are practical things you can do today that can help you overcome the challenges awaiting you upon graduation, and maybe even accelerate your career.
As the Vice-Chancellor of CQUniversity with decades of experience producing skilled graduates for workforces all over Australia, and with the help of my long-time friend and former colleague Anna Bounds – a leading university expert – we’ve developed a list of the ten most important pieces of advice that 2020’s university graduates could possibly receive right now.
1) Maintain your focus on completing your studies. That qualification you have been working so hard towards will be more important in 2021 than ever before. Take a deep breath, and hit the books with a renewed hunger for success.
2) Reach out to your university and seek help the moment you feel you need it; be it career advice, study support, financial assistance, or your own mental wellbeing.
3) Start preparing your CV now and put some time and effort into the process. Use online resources to refine it, and ensure your CV tells your individual story about what you’ve done, the skills you’ve acquired, what you’d like to achieve, and where and how you would like to make a contribution to your profession. Be prepared to tailor your CV for the specific requirements of each individual job application. Talk with a trusted person about your CV and get it checked for content and typos – we all need help to accurately promote our own story.
4) Wherever possible, be proactive in seeking real world experience. Volunteer with charities, community groups, not-for-profits or sporting clubs and take on responsibilities related – even loosely – to your field of study. Graduate with existing experience and references wherever you can, and understand how impressive volunteering looks on a CV.
5) Think critically about the jobs you’d like to have and make a list of them. Do some research, look at job ads (LinkedIn, Seek, or job vacancies on prospective employer websites) to better understand what skills, aptitudes or attitudes are required to succeed in those roles and match these requirements against yourself. Call prospective employers and ask what graduate attributes are most important to them. Identify where your gaps lie and seek ways to fill these gaps – don’t be afraid to seek advice from your university lecturers or career support staff about how you might do this.
6) Join professional networks such as LinkedIn, industry associations (student memberships are often free or heavily discounted), your university alumni network (upon graduation), or professional societies in your field (your lecturers can point you towards relevant societies). Be an active observer in these networks – push yourself to interact and learn from others.
7) Find the online communities or leaders in your chosen profession with active social media profiles. Follow them and learn all you can about your industry. This is industry experience you can gain from your couch right now.
8) Do your research to identify an industry mentor who could support you during your graduate journey and reach out to them. You would be surprised by how many people with established careers would be willing to receive a cold call and give you feedback on your CV, share their networks or help you look for jobs, identify further study options, or spend time giving you general career advice.
9) Assess your post-graduation steps. Some professions will be in high demand due to COVID-19, and job-seeking will be a good option. But other professions and industries may take time to recover, so consider further study (such as Honours, postgraduate options, or even diversifying your skills base with practical vocational training via TAFE) as an alternative to job-seeking.
10) Know that the current health crisis will pass, and so too will the economic uncertainty. When it does, the skills and attributes you are unwittingly developing during this crisis – application, determination, adaptation, remote working skills, the ability to finish tasks amid disaster, problem solving – will be vital to your success in the job market. So, don’t shrink from the current challenges, rise above them, and wear your 2020 graduation as a badge of honour.
Recognise that the decision you made a few years ago to invest in your future and enrol yourself at university was the best decision you could have made then, and that absolutely remains the case now. Granted, the economy you will be graduating into later this year will be peculiar to say the least. But our major industries have never needed a more highly skilled workforce of critical thinkers, and that’s where your university qualification gives you a distinct advantage.
The other thing you need to realise about the world being tipped on its head, is that unusual new opportunities will spring up everywhere, and take everyone by surprise. Many of these opportunities aren’t obvious today, but your university qualification will give you a front row seat to these emerging prospects. Be ready for them.
University isn’t easy. Tertiary study has always been one of the greatest challenges you can take on in life, and no Vice-Chancellor will apologise for that. So, the fact you’ve made it this far into your study journey says to me that you’ve absolutely got what it takes to make it through the next few months and graduate successfully. Your family, friends, colleagues and your university can’t wait to celebrate your success when you graduate. Stay focussed, seek help when you need it, and back yourself.
Professor Nick Klomp, Vice-Chancellor and President CQUniversity Australia
Anna Bounds, Higher Education and Organisational Development Consultant