Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the competition for entry-level jobs was already intense. In the struggle to get a career head-start, many recent university graduates found that their education alone was insufficient to make them stand out from their peers. With websites like LinkedIn and Glassdoor facilitating job applications with a few clicks (even automatically attaching your resume in the process), employers found themselves dealing with more applicants than ever before.
Even when graduates equipped themselves with relevant internship experience and extra-curricular achievements, many still found their inboxes cluttered with all-too-familiar rejection emails: vague in content, thanking them for their time and wishing them the best in their job search. Still others found themselves ghosted by these companies, without even the courtesy of a formal rejection. It was a scenario that many final-year students could expect and were bracing themselves for. Now the Class of 2020 faces a much more difficult job market, where uncertainty is now the only certainty.
However, though the challenges ahead will be real and painful, they can ultimately be conquered. Your generation’s not alone – it can identify with those who had started their careers during tough times like the 2007-2008 global financial crisis. Regardless of whether you’re a fresh graduate or someone switching into a new career track, if you hold on to hope and resilience, you’ll definitely find the right opportunities. Indeed, many who persevered through the last financial crisis eventually built fruitful careers with the lessons learnt from their rough starts.
Not every career path looks like a straight line upwards, and that’s perfectly fine. You may not be able to avoid a rocky start to your career, but the initial struggles can help build character and skills needed to tackle future challenges.
It’s an experience I’m personally familiar with – I graduated from an Australian university and returned to a job market impacted by the global economic aftershocks of the September 11th attacks. Retrenching exercises were commonplace then. As a fresh graduate in IT trying to kick-start my new career after five years in the army, I found myself competing with both local and overseas graduates, as well as those who were retrenched and looking to get back on track. There was also a bit of an age disadvantage, since I was not as young as most other graduates and my previous military experience had nothing to do with IT.
My salary as an army officer was quite good, and that contributed to the higher expectations I had for myself in looking for an entry-level IT position. As time passed and the bitter experiences of reality hit home, those expectations fell. Eventually, I applied for roles that I initially felt were unsuitable for me or were in completely unrelated industries. When I received no response after applying for IT jobs, I found myself applying for sales roles in SMEs and even hospitality roles with hotels. These days, it’s very common to hear others recommend that you “just apply for everything”, and there’s truth in it – while it may be a choice in a normal job market, it will be a necessity in a COVID-19 job market.
Over a depressing period of six to nine months, I had 20-30 interviews (and many more pre-interview rejections) before I was recommended a contract staff role by my friend. The job involved handling computer operating system migrations for a company, six days a week on the midnight shift.
Having studied data computing in university, I did not have any experience on the role’s hardware-centric aspects, like removing computer casings and extracting the RAM (random access memory) units within. Nevertheless, I made it a point to ask my experienced friends for advice on the steps and wrote them down to familiarise myself with the operations. With more experience leading people than engaging them as customers, I had to adopt a service-minded attitude for the front-end aspects of the job. In order to train my customer service skills, I even practiced by rehearsing and recording my interactions.
The circumstances of 2020 may be very different from 2001’s, but I believe that some experiences will still be relevant and relatable even into the future. While I expected a more glamorous full-time first job in IT, I had to make do with a contract role and dedicate myself to excelling at it. In doing so, I internalised the importance of learning new skills, keeping up to date with them and giving my best no matter how dull or difficult the task may be.
I also learnt to not be afraid or embarrassed when asking questions to cover any gaps in my knowledge – indeed, asking questions is a fundamental skill that I urge everyone to master, since curiosity helps increase our understanding and safeguards us from making mistakes due to insufficient information. As the old saying goes, ‘pride comes before a fall’. If pride is stopping you from reaching out and clarifying what you don’t know, put it away for your own good. Of course, while it’s good to ask questions, it’s not good to annoy others by repeating the same questions all the time. That’s where good memory or note-taking comes in.
My ability to tackle challenges and setbacks developed from those early days; since my journey into the IT industry was a rocky one, I learnt how to cope with less-than-perfect situations at work and make the best of every opportunity.
In the beginning, and when I was at some of the lowest points of my career, ‘glass half-full’ thinking kept me going forward when I felt like giving up. A glass filled to the halfway point with water can be perceived as half-empty or half-full; whether we choose to focus on the positives or negatives in each situation can be as simple as adjusting our perspectives.
Whenever I found myself in a difficult situation, instead of obsessing over what I lacked, I thought about my journey and the challenges I overcame to reach that point in my career. With that, I managed to unearth the confidence I buried and used it to push myself forward. After all, what’s another battle when you’re a veteran of many past victories? Regardless of the prospects of victory or defeat, a veteran is confident in his ability to perform.
Living in the present, the challenges directly ahead can seem impossible. However, when you look at the circumstances from an overall, long-term perspective, they won’t seem so hopeless – you still have more than 40 years to go before truly reaching the end of your career path. Eventually, you’ll be viewing this as a rough but ultimately manageable period in the grand scheme of things. Thinking in reverse has also helped me make significant career decisions. With the end-goal in mind, plan on how you can make your way there – using this method, you may discover that a lateral career move is unexpectedly the best decision for you.
Starting from behind can also be a powerful motivator for achieving career milestones. Putting 110% effort to make up for lost time can doubly work to your advantage when you maintain that momentum to overtake your peers from previous years after catching up with them. Even when factors beyond your control slow down your career progression at any stage (including the start), it’s okay to feel upset. The key is to not let the demoralisation stick, but rather to make the most of your situation.
For example, if you’re currently awaiting responses from companies, you might want to take a bit of time out of your day to hone your soft skills for potential interviews. When you have fewer opportunities, you need to make every shot count – mastering the interview setting can help seal the deal, when nothing else separates you from your competition.
If you find yourself stuck with a disappointing first job (low pay, boring job scope, not your target industry etc.), don’t just settle for it – even as you continue to work there, your expectations for what you don’t want in your next role have been revealed to you. With this clarity, you’ll be able to plan and determine next steps in your career path.
Where no opportunities for your desired industry exists, if you’re fortunate enough to begin your career at an industry related to that, you can pick up transferable skills and knowledge that you can use to possibly leverage yourself back into your dream job when the economy improves. In life, not all paths are straight or smooth – there are many twists and turns to navigate, but also key points in which we can change our trajectory.
To view the full content, sign up for a free account and unlock 3 free podcasts, power reads or videos every month.
Head of Delivery, Asia Region | Former CTO