Sustaining Career Pathways During COVID-19

Dear College Success colleagues,

This blog series has focused on the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on low-income students and their ability to successfully navigate college to graduate on time, with little debt, prepared to enter a career. We now see more clearly than ever, that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting Black Americans, and the Black Lives Matter movement is further calling on us to reconfirm and strengthen our commitment to racial justice during this time. The work that we do to support student success is crucial, and we must continue to work together to create a just and equitable society. Our students are resilient and are the leaders of the change this country needs.

As we all grapple with what the fall term will look like, and what employment will look like for our recent college graduates, my hope is that this series continues to be helpful as we all journey forward together. In this uncertain time, there are more questions than answers, but learning from each other will help guide us all to a more healthy, just, and successful future. The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has also greatly impacted networking opportunities, events have been canceled and internships have been severely limited. To learn about how organizations who help low-income students are addressing these unprecedented challenges, I spoke with Andrea Schwartz Boone, Founding Executive Director at an innovative nonprofit Braven.

The team at Braven is not only teaching low-income, first-generation students how to increase their chances of getting chosen for internships and jobs, but also proactively connect students with companies looking to fill positions and equip students with the skills to be successful in the workplace. Fortunately, Braven was already at the cutting edge of leveraging technology to fulfill their mission, with about 80% of its teaching and networking conducted virtually. While campus shutdowns and the shift to online learning have created new challenges, Braven saw an opportunity to showcase a long-term approach to sustaining career pathways for low-income students during a crisis.

Melissa: Can you discuss why internships play such an important role in addressing the education-to-employment gap that exists for so many low-income students?

Andrea: It’s estimated that 85% of jobs are filled through referrals, and internships are often the primary career pathway for students of all backgrounds. Internships not only allow students to gain direct experience in their fields and build up their resumes, but also help students make valuable connections, meet mentors and champions, and gain confidence in a workplace setting. Building social capital is especially important for low-income students who are less likely to have a family member, friend, or business associate of a parent to help them get a foot in the door, unlike their wealthy and middle-class peers. That is where organizations like Braven and CAP can help.

Melissa: What would you consider to be unique or special about your program as it pertains to supporting students as they build their resumes?

Andrea: We are one of the only nonprofits that offers high-quality, personalized career development in a scalable way. This is key, because each student must have their own unique career path and not be part of a “one size fits all” approach. We maintain this level of personalization by separating students into groups of 5-8, known as “cohorts,” so our coaches can teach courses that zero in on the needs of individuals. In their courses, students master skills like problem-solving, working well in teams, and networking, which are critical for success in most industries but not always explicitly taught and assessed. One critical skill is that of storytelling – how to consistently tell a powerful story about one’s assets and strengths that will resonate with potential employers. Leveraging their stories through LinkedIn profiles and resumes helps students capitalize on their strengths to enhance their opportunities and stand out among competitors.

We also focus specifically on helping first-generation students, students of color, and those from low-income communities. Tailoring programs to the unique needs of students from these backgrounds is important as they often face additional barriers to success, such as stereotype threat. Fellows learn to leverage their story as a career asset and learn how to navigate imposter syndrome, gaining confidence throughout the process.

Finally, a core strength is that we partner with businesses that are committed to building diverse, inclusive workplaces. In the Bay Area, for instance, many of our partners are tech companies that are interested in recruiting from local communities rather than from elite universities. This is not just a matter of demonstrating community purpose; rather, these companies recognize that recruiting from a narrow subset of society limits them to certain kinds of hires. They know that hiring more diverse, innovative people is key to success in the 21st century, and we help fill the gap between talented students looking for opportunities and the businesses who want to expand their human resources horizons. I like to say that talent has no zip code, and our corporate partners understand that.

Melissa: How has COVID-19 impacted Braven’s programs? More broadly, how can nonprofits help low-income students navigate this particularly challenging time and build career pathways amidst a pandemic and looming recession?

Andrea: To answer the first part of that question, thankfully technology has been an integral part of the Braven model and positioned us to create a strong virtual learning environment quickly. Eighty percent of Braven’s course is already provided online, and in a week, we were able to move the in-person experiences onto virtual platforms. Specifically, our team quickly adjusted our model and support, including retrofitting Learning Labs and other signature events like Mock Interviews for virtual, assessing our Fellows’ access to technology and connectivity outside of their university setting, and training our Leadership Coaches to effectively facilitate virtually. We also have been connecting our students to virtual internships and volunteer work that will allow them to showcase their skills and personal strengths as much as possible without being able to do so in person. We were happy to see strong results on many of our key course metrics despite the switch to virtual.

We’re also launching a new offering – the Braven Career Booster – to support the more than 500,000 low-income and first-generation college seniors who are graduating into this unprecedented economic moment and now more than ever need to be prepared to compete for strong jobs.

As to the second part of the question, I would say that nonprofits, companies and universities alike need to really focus on helping students learn and capitalize on their inner strengths to stand out in a job market that will be more difficult to navigate in the coming months and years. At Braven, we are leaning into our flexible, scalable model that aims to match students with the best possible opportunities; that means paying close attention to trends in employment and knowing which companies and industries are looking for talent. Though the overall economy may enter a downturn or recession, businesses will still be looking for the kinds of people who can be sources of creativity and innovation in the times ahead. It is all about finding that demand, getting your foot in the door and proving your value as an employee. We are here to help those students who often get passed over to demolish those barriers to success – and whatever the status of the economy, we are going to keep doing that.

Melissa: To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has been disruptive is an understatement. In addition to the tragic loss of life and ongoing health risks, this crisis has thrown people’s lives and future plans into chaos, including many low-income college students who may not have access to resources like Braven. For both students who are part of Braven and those who are not, what advice do you offer regarding contingency planning for this crisis and future disruptions that can derail even the most carefully laid plans?

Andrea: I would say there are four key ways that people can be proactive and get ahead of even the most disruptive events, whether personal or global in scope.

  1. Don’t just focus on applying for “dream jobs” that fit all your desires and expectations. In an event like COVID-19 or a sudden recession, that can leave you stranded without a clear pathway. In addition to your ideal jobs, look for positions that match your transferable skills, even if it is not in your chosen industry. Other options include paid fellowships in your field of study and graduate school. And do not hesitate to apply for jobs that are a pathway to career-accelerating positions. These can be full-time, part-time, or temporary and can also be internships or micro-internships. “Pathway jobs” are strategic for recent grads, given that switching jobs frequently is a path to higher earnings and allows you to build up your skills quickly during a recession.
  2. Routinely apply for a lot of positions or opportunities. When there are fewer jobs, you will increase your chances by applying to more. Don’t apply blindly but apply a lot. You can adopt habits that encourage you to consistently put yourself out there, such as reserving at least an hour each day on your calendar to search and apply for positions.
  3. Spend time upskilling. Completing reputable online courses and programs like LinkedIn Learning and Udemy and volunteering can help you increase your employability while you are looking for a paid job, and help you build up your resume if it is lacking.
  4. Keep a positive mindset. This may seem cliched, but in my experience, it can make an enormous difference. If you have to adopt a contingency plan that goes against your original expectations – such as taking a job in a different field – don’t look at it as a negative; look at it as a positive, career-enhancing opportunity. Be open-minded about your pathway and option, and you’ll benefit from whatever experiences you have. Things are difficult for many (or most) people right now, but when it comes to career pathways, creative, positive thinking can go a long way. At Braven, one of our core values is “Find a Way.” While it is an extremely challenging time, remaining disciplined, nimble, and innovative will help students find a way forward.