Seniors are ready to say goodbye pandemic, hello workforce

A large majority of college seniors say they are prepared to enter the workforce and feel hopeful about the future, according to a new survey from TimelyMD.

The telehealth company focused on higher ed surveyed more than 1,000 college seniors and found that 88 percent of the Class of 2022 felt prepared to enter the workforce, and 92 percent expressed hope for the future.

Seli Fakorzi, director of mental health at TimelyMD, said those numbers are encouraging and show that students remained resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic—even as they battled an onslaught of mental health challenges, as a previous TimelyMD survey found.

“Students are avidly seeking care, support and education around their mental health,” Fakorzi said. “And over all, this means that students are prepared and they do feel like the experience that they’ve gotten in higher ed has helped prepare them for their future.”

Certainly it helps that nearly two-thirds of college seniors—62 percent—already have a job offer, the survey found. Among those, 87 percent said they have a position in their desired field, and 53 percent said they will earn a higher salary than they expected, while 40 percent said they would earn within the range they expected.

Christine Cruzvergara, chief education strategy officer at Handshake, a popular career services platform for students, said she was surprised to see such a high number of seniors already have their postgraduation plans secured.

“That is a little bit higher than I think what we would typically see at this point in the year—not necessarily higher than when you get to graduation or six months out from graduation; Those numbers are usually, to be honest, quite strong,” Cruzvergara said. “But I think for it to already be happening so early in the year is an indication of how the economy is doing right now and how strong the job market is.”

Andy Chan, vice president for innovation and career development at Wake Forest University, said he was especially surprised that only 7 percent of seniors with job offers said they were hired for a lower rate of pay than they expected. That shows graduating students have some leverage in the workforce, he said.

“I think it actually signifies that the market—meaning employers—are realizing they need to pay students fairly in order to get them to come,” Chan said. “And we’ve seen students actually being able to negotiate salaries a little bit—not everyone, but some of them get higher salaries.”

The Class of 2022 also wants the kind of flexible work schedules that gained favor during the pandemic, the TimelyMD survey found. Besides salary, 68 percent of seniors said flexible work hours were an important factor when considering a job, and 47 percent named a flexible work environment, such as working from home. Those factors ranked higher than medical benefits, cited by 46 percent, and vacation time, named by 40 percent.

And after two years of social distancing, the seniors surveyed seemed excited for face-to-face contact; 58 percent said they preferred a fully in-person work environment, 24 percent want a hybrid position and only 18 percent are looking to be completely remote.

Chan said the pandemic fueled the preference among college seniors for flexible work hours and environment because it showed them that employers could be adaptable when they needed to be—and that employees could still get their work done.

“I think people are realizing, ‘Wait, I need to have that option to have some flexibility’ and also ‘I can be really productive, even if I’m not in the office all the time,'” Chan said. “So it feels like employees are starting to ask for things that are meaningful to them.”

A majority of seniors, 77 percent, also reported that they used their institution’s career development office, resources or programs. And 53 percent said their career development offices actually helped them find a job. Cruzvergara called it “heartwarming” to see so many more students than usual turn to their institutions for career help.

“I don’t know if perhaps the pandemic has spurred more students to take advantage of the resources that they have on campus because they were worried or they want to be more prepared,” Cruzvergara said. “Or if it’s just the nature of what’s happening around them is causing students to feel like, ‘I do need support, I have access to this, and I’m going to take advantage of it.'”

Mental Health Challenges Remain

Even though the TimelyMD survey found a majority of college seniors say they are prepared to enter the workforce, 69 percent said the pandemic made them feel less prepared. Seventy percent of seniors responded that mental health issues were the No. 1 reason for this feeling, followed by concerns about physical health, which 46 percent of students cited, and struggles with academics, cited by 41 percent.

Additionally, when asked if they were stressed or anxious about entering the workforce, 54 percent said somewhat and 14 percent said very. As for what worries seniors the most about entering the workforce, 65 percent said finding and keeping a job, 52 percent said supporting themselves financially, and 49 percent said having to be independent and self-reliant.

Fakorzi said the professors and career development directors he has spoken to suggest that many students used their institution’s resources this year precisely because they were so stressed about the job market and their readiness to enter it.

“A lot of our student population now have the stressors of graduation, finals and spring fever,” Fakorzi said. “But they’re also reaching out for help to get assistance in this area just to prepare them for the workforce.”

Because seniors are so aware of the toll the pandemic has taken on their mental health, many are calling for their employers to offer mental health resources. The survey found 92 percent of seniors said companies should offer mental health or emotional health benefits. Thirty-four percent said a company’s mental health benefits were just as important to them as having a 401(k) and other retirement perks.

Chan said that graduating seniors asking for mental health resources from their employers is a relatively new concept. It has led many employers to ask themselves how they can create a socially responsible work environment, complete with sufficient mental health resources.

“The fact that as a young person, when I think about what I should ask of my employer, which is to care for my mental health, that seems like a whole set of new ideas and language and concepts that we haven’t historically talked about as an American culture,” Chan said. “I feel like oftentimes American culture is a ‘suck it up and just do the work’ and ‘stop complaining’ kind of culture. Through the pandemic and through the experience of everyone really understanding the value of diversity, equity, inclusion, people are saying, ‘We need to take care of each other.’”

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