With companies continuing to re-evaluate hiring and their internship programs in light of COVID-19, more and more students are getting left out of the equation.

Before the pandemic, the class of 2020 was gearing up to enter one of the hottest job markets in years. Today, the hiring forecast resembles one that’s eerily reminiscent of the Great Recession, with the economic and hiring gains we’ve relished for years vanishing in a plume of smoke.

Growth from the last 10 years came to a screeching halt in March as markets began to tumble following COVID-19’s impact on our communities. Based on new findings from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), of employers that’ve made adjustments to their business in light of COVID-19, half are no longer hiring or are deferring start dates for their new hires.

While employers and students grapple with this new reality, findings from Handshake depict a more uplifting trend: employers, higher education institutions, and students are continuing to connect and engage with one another.

This continued connection between students and schools is more important now than ever. According to Handshake’s Rethinking Early Talent Hiring in the Era of COVID-19 report, 74% of college seniors are looking to their school’s career center to help facilitate interactions with employers, and every 2 in 3 students want to hear from employers about open roles.

Employers that are either currently debating or have already implemented a hiring freeze should evaluate their risks. How much does your organization rely on early talent? If you freeze engagement today, will you still have a strong pipeline of candidates or interns when hiring eventually resumes? How can you stay relevant and top-of-mind for candidates during this crucial time?

With 61% of seniors considering a job in the gig economy, we know that soon-to-be graduates are prioritizing experience and income generation during this time. If you’re exploring a hiring freeze or deferring your internship program, consider providing Gen Z graduates with micro-internships or short-term opportunities instead.

After all, remaining in touch with candidates demonstrates goodwill and strong leadership. And this small gesture can create lasting positive associations with your employer brand and company, not to mention helping develop a new generation of professionals, even when times are tough. 

In this post, we’ll highlight a few benefits of engaging early talent through meaningful, project-based work. We’ll also provide actionable advice and share steps you can take to directly impact this cohort of recent graduates during a time of crisis.

1. Project-based work bridges the skills gap in the transition from campus to career

It’s well-known that the skills gap—meaning the difference between skills required and the skills students actually possess—isn’t merely comprised of instructional hard skills like accounting or marketing, but also soft skills such as written and verbal communication and collaboration.

The skills gap is frequently attributed to a failure of the US education system, but that’s not really the case. According to the National Association of Colleges & Employers (NACE), models that work best at resolving these skills shortages are when an employer or group of employers connects with one or more institutions of higher learning to provide the immediate skill sets needed for their open jobs through meaningful micro-internships or project-based work.

Amazon Web Services and the Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) system, for example, recently partnered to offer online tuition-free summer courses in cloud computing to provide high school seniors with a jumpstart on their careers in tech. With clear benefits to both the students and to Amazon, the subsidized program will provide the company with a skilled pipeline of early talent who are prepared to work at their new HQ once it opens in the Washington D.C. area.

Creating project-based opportunities equips early talent with the right skills for the future workforce, while simultaneously enabling companies to deploy a data-driven approach towards identifying which skills are missing most from this new generation of rising grads. Meaningful, short-term projects also foster priority consideration from candidates who are looking for the right place to launch their careers.

2. Short-term assignments boost long-term consideration from early talent

With so many internships either getting canceled or postponed, the class of 2020 will have less experience to proudly highlight on their resumes.

Project-based work can help fill that gap. What’s challenging for companies right now is uncertainty: they simply don’t know where they’re going to be financially a year from now. Micro-internships or project-based digital assignments hold tremendous appeal in that they give early talent an opportunity to try new roles while gaining experience before fully committing.

Plus, once the impacts of COVID-19 subside, we predict that sourcing is going to be hyper-competitive once more. By keeping early talent engaged through meaningful, short-term work during this time, you’ll develop early consideration from your priority candidate segments in the long haul.

There are creative ways to cut costs while still remaining engaged with early talent. Instead of flat out canceling their traditional 10-week paid summer internship, Handshake Premium partner, PwC, for example, shifted to a two-week paid virtual program. PwC knew cancellations were on students’ minds, so they made it a priority to reach out early and communicate their updates as soon as possible to help mitigate high feelings of uncertainty.

By being proactive, PwC found a way to prepare for the future by ensuring that their hiring pipeline remains in place for years after the pandemic subsides.

We’re also seeing that some of Handshake’s Premium partners are gamifying the experience by providing candidates and micro-interns with a place where they can network virtually to drive full-time offer acceptance in 2021. They’re realizing the impact of the number of internships that have been canceled, and are exploring ways to help students connect with their opportunities if their offers have been rescinded.

3. Micro-internships can help level the playing field for underrepresented talent

Unemployment or underemployment with graduating seniors can lead to predictable negative outcomes. Only a couple of years ago, we found that of those who graduate underemployed, about half remain underemployed 10 years later.

Underrepresented groups fare worse, with nearly 9 in 10 college and university presidents indicating concern about the disproportionate impact on students from low-income backgrounds during this time, according to a recent study conducted by Inside Higher Ed and Hanover Research.

Early talent relies on the income from their internships to financially support them throughout the school year. In the absence of these opportunities, and with students losing their on-campus jobs since sheltering in place, it’s up to schools and employers to determine how to help level the playing field by democratizing opportunity for early talent everywhere.

If you’re rescinding offers, one way you can help students is by sharing a list with them of companies that are still hiring to help reassign candidates. Demonstrating concern at a time like this doesn’t take much extra effort, and goes a long way towards establishing goodwill and directly impacting students’ lives.

According to Jason Wingard, Dean and Professor at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies, due to economic limitations, some students may lack access to traditional internships which would’ve required moving to another state.

Micro-internships, or project-based work, allow students to work remotely on short-term projects while continuing to stay in school, live at home, or hold onto other jobs. By doing so, employers can access a wider pool of talent with diverse skills that will undoubtedly strengthen their teams.

Short-term virtual opportunities require a short time commitment, typically 5-40 hours within a couple of weeks or month, and allow students to explore different career paths, gain valuable experience, remain employed, and build their professional networks.

Highly-specific, project-based positions can be deployed in areas like accounting, content creation, and even engineering. By offering these opportunities, you’ll put your employer brand in a good position and generate a pipeline of qualified candidates for the future.

Final Notes

During this period of uncertainty, we hope to have shared our belief that supporting early talent through project-based work can be an excellent way to stay connected, to teach valuable skills, to boost your brand recognition, and to offer real income-generation opportunities.

It is our intention to inspire other employers to join us in our commitment to serving this vulnerable segment of the population. Learn how Handshake can better support you in building up your qualified early talent pipeline during this time.