Class of 2021: Four Ways to Help COVID-Era Grads Adapt to the Working World

Pandemic Grads Need You: Become a micro-mentor iStock

Wearing a cap and gown. Listening to inspiring words from assorted luminaries. Hearing the dean of students read off your name—not in person, but from a Zoom screen. Such is the state of college graduations these days. But this isn't only about missing out on experiences most of us have enjoyed. The Class of 2021 is entering a challenging job market, perhaps like none other. While recent unemployment numbers have been encouraging, hiring for entry level, college grad positions has fallen 45 percent since the start of the pandemic, according to data from Burning Glass Technologies, a labor-market analytics firm.

The bottom line: Four million graduates are going to need a lot of help and shouldn't have to go it alone. Here's how we—educators, parents and friends—can help.

Become a Micro-Mentor

Being asked, "Will you be my mentor?" can be as intimidating as someone asking, "Will you marry me?" on the first date. If you have time to regularly provide advice and support to a young person, great. But most of us don't.

Here's an alternative: Offer to share advice over a 15-minute Zoom call. Or proofread a resume or cover letter. You can also tweet out a few book recommendations that helped you through your own college-to-career transition, answer a few career-related questions on Quora or volunteer to help with mock interviewing at your alma mater's career center. Mentoring doesn't have to be long-term to be helpful.

Share Real-Life Horror Stories

When I graduated from college, I felt like I had missed the memo on how to successfully launch into adult life. How did everyone else know how to write a resume or rent an apartment or which tax withholding to select? Today's grad's might wonder, "Why does it seem like every one of my friends on Facebook and Instagram have it all together? Why not me?"

One the best things we can do is to share the mistakes we all made starting out. What were our missteps? The bad choices we made and why? Such stories not only serve as models for things to avoid post-graduation, but also helps grads know they're not alone in the game of life. For instance, Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code and the Marshall Plan for Moms, shares tales of failure on her Instagram, with the hashtag #FailureFriday. "Be brave, not perfect," Ms. Suajani said it one posting. "Do something that scares you, big or small. When you realize failure can't break you, you're unstoppable."

My not-to-do list? Forgetting to send a thank you note after a family friend made an important introduction, not knowing I had to pay quarterly taxes on freelance income, incessantly comparing myself to former classmates and spending way too many hours in my childhood bedroom worrying and wondering what career I should pursue rather that actually applying for jobs.

Offer a Paid Internship or Apprenticeship

Empathy, of course, is a good thing. A job is better. In other words: the Class of 2021 needs real work experience. If you can't provide a full-time entry-level job, consider offering a paid internship or apprenticeship. Recent grads need experience, but they also need income.

(Yeah, I know, there are a lot of unpaid internships out there. It's a thing. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 43 percent of internships at for-profit companies are unpaid. Not good. Pay Our Interns and Parker Dewey are two organizations that can help you set up paid gigs.)

But remember this: you can't let your new interns hang out to dry. They need detailed training on specific tasks. They'll need help with the "soft skills" like communication, teamwork and resilience that help to determine success. Also: let them see you in action. In my first internship at a nonprofit, my supervisor invited me to listen in on her fundraising phone calls to observe how she handled pushback and rejection, which gave me invaluable tools to apply in my own career.

Lindsey Pollak headshot blazer
Lindsey Pollak


Finally, we can support members of the Class of 2021 by encouraging them to reflect on the lessons they will take away from their unique position in history and listening to their stories. My cousin Olivia was a member of last year's college Class of 2020 and I'll never forget how she described the experience of graduating in a pandemic.

"My friends and I still talk all the time about the lack of an ending," Olivia explained. "Not having a last week of classes; not walking across the stage for graduation. I had to undergo a pretty abrupt mindset change that my life is so much more serious now, working full-time and sitting in front of the computer 12 hours a day. I will never regain the experience I lost."

While no one can make up for the experiences lost, we can help grads process their emotions and let them know they're not alone. I hope to say one day that I supported the newest entrants into the workforce in their unique time of need. I hope you will too.


Lindsey Pollak is New York Times bestselling author and a workplace expert with a focus on early career success. Her latest book is Recalculating: Navigate Your Career Through the Changing World of Work.