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How to Prepare 2021 High School Seniors for Work or College Post-Pandemic

It’s been a full year since COVID-19 flipped life on its head. High school students everywhere have adapted to quarantine, switched to online learning, and seen their junior and senior years widely transformed.

 Now, it’s a new year, filled with both hope and uncertainty. At the forefront are our 2021 high school graduates, who are preparing to walk into a world that has seen traditional pathways to the workforce changed dramatically. With unemployment still high, vaccines still rolling out, and an increasingly digital workforce, it’s no wonder that graduating students feel overwhelmed.

 In the last few months before the Class of 2021 dons their (likely virtual) caps and gowns, what can teachers do to prepare 2021 graduates for a post-pandemic workforce? 

The answer lies not only in ensuring students learn the proper hard skills, but also in making sure they have the technical knowledge and the confidence to get themselves considered for their ideal jobs in the first place.

1. Equip your students with virtual job hunting skills.

At this point, finding jobs online is a hard skill in itself. Now that half of Facebook’s staff is expected to work from home for the next 10 years and all of Google will stay home until at least this summer, it’s more important than ever that students are prepared to find work online. Long gone are the days when one could walk into an office and simply ask for a job, but as anyone who’s spent hours trawling online job boards could tell you, sending out application after application often feels like tossing your resume into the abyss.

If your students are to succeed in a primarily digital job search, they need to understand how to optimize their chances of catching the eye of overwhelmed hiring managers in the first place.

How to Prepare 2021 High School Seniors for Work or College Post-Pandemic

Teach your students to optimize their resumes using keywords.

Over 98% of Fortune 500 companies use robots to read through applications, using systems known as, predictably enough, Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS). For a company receiving hundreds of applications for each position they post, their ATS programs filter out non-qualified applications from the beginning, meaning that a real human might only look at around 25% of them. To make sure your students are able to get past these filters, spend some time teaching them how to optimize their resumes for ATS:

  1. Read each job description carefully, and only apply to the jobs for which you have the core skills (more on helping your students gain hard skills later).
  2. Tailor your resume to each job application.
  3. Use keywords (usually found in the job title and description) in your bullet points and descriptions, but don’t stuff in keywords or try to cheat the system by hiding them in white text!
  4. Design your resume as a simple, .docx format with no columns, logos, or images.

At the end of the day, ATS software is trying to help real people do their jobs better. Of course, there are all sorts of tips out there about how to game the ATS system, and your internet native students may know more about these “life hacks” than you do. Remember: it’s just as harmful to try to work against ATS software as it is to go into a job search knowing nothing about it. 

By teaching your students to understand ATS, you can work with them to optimize their resumes while preventing them from submitting “spammy” applications that will ultimately get ignored.

Set your students up for success with professional social media.

First impressions are everything, and nowadays, anyone applying for work has made a first impression long before they ever show up to an interview. Aside from your students’ resumes, one of the best ways for them to stand out online is by learning how to optimize their LinkedIn profiles.

Your students are likely already familiar with cultivating their online identities via apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok, and LinkedIn isn’t really all that different. The main point to keep in mind is that rather than crafting a casual identity for leisure, LinkedIn is your virtual suit and tie. Every interaction, while genuine, should also contribute to a professional conversation, and the connections your students make there can be instrumental in landing them their desired jobs.

To help your students stand out on LinkedIn, make sure their profiles contain the following:

  1. A clear, professional profile photo
  2. A concise headline that explains exactly what your students want to do
  3. A complete profile that includes their full work histories and extracurricular activities
  4. A well-written “About” section that naturally works in career keywords

This is doubly important for students who wish to go the entrepreneurial route and become self-employed. These students will also need to build their own website to carve out a unique, identifiable space for themselves online that lets interested partners and prospects know exactly what they do and why they do it. 

The good news is that internet native students may have an easier time adapting to a primarily online work environment than their parents, especially after months of online schooling. It’s a good thing, too, because according to the experts, digital work culture isn’t going anywhere.

2. Inspire your students to master hard skills.

It’s a problem that’s only gotten worse with time…high schoolers and even college graduates are leaving school with none of the hard skills that employers need. A November 2020 report by the Brookings Institution explains how this knowledge gap leads to high levels of unemployment for young people, even as employers desperately need new workers. 

In the long term, the best way to fix this is Work Based Learning (WBL): programs that allow students to work (and get paid!) as entry-level employees. In WBL programs, students both fulfill needed functions for their employers while they gain experience and hard skills crucial for standing out in their field. 

For 2021 grads, though, it’s probably too late to implement a whole new program into their final semester, especially if your school doesn’t already have WBL programs in place. That said, you can still help them get noticed in their applications for work, paid internships, and even college. 

Virtual job hunting skills will help, but here are several more ways to equip your students with hard skills before they graduate: business simulations

Like online classes and certifications, business simulations let students take an in-depth look into their desired career. Unlike the online classroom, simulations allow students to interact directly with their lessons by allowing them to step into the shoes of an advanced professional in their field.

Many of today’s students are already familiar with video game simulations like SimCity and The Sims 4. For 2021 grads who may not have time to enroll in a traditional WBL program and who are already swamped with job applications, college applications, final exams, and end-of-year assignments, business simulations can allow them to dip their toes into their desired career without getting in over their heads.

Free skill courses and certifications

One of the benefits of our virtual world is that it’s easier than ever to pick up new skills. Your students can now independently learn new, vital skills using free platforms like YouTube, Skillshare, and Codecademy…and the list doesn’t end there. These courses generally fall into two categories:

  1. Academic skills
    Sources like YouTube EDU, edX, Coursera, and Quill are devoted to helping students improve academic skills that they’ll need to nail college admissions exams, test out of gen-eds, and boost their performance in their major classes.  Forbes has a list of 13 such courses your students can use to get ahead before graduation, and edX has a list of 35.
  2. Work-based skills
    There’s a fair amount of overlap between academic and work skills when it comes to fields like mathematics, language acquisition, psychology, literature, and more. However, if students want to pick up specific hard skills like coding, digital marketing, and graphic design, they can pursue online education such as freeCodeCampCodecademyHubspot Academy, and Skillshare.

Not only will these courses give students an advantage in a competitive job market, they will also get them into the habit of continuing to learn once their formal education is over. 

Also consider exposing your students to informative podcasts and blogs that they can use to stay in the loop post-graduation. Whether or not your students want to move on to higher education, the best thing they can do for their careers is stay up-to-date with fluctuating trends, earn more advanced certifications, and constantly stay on the lookout for opportunities to improve their skill sets.

In addition, all the high school Career and Technical Student Organizations (CTSOs) offer extensive career and work preparation programs for your students – DECAFBLA-PBLFCCLA, and BPA

3. Prepare your students to align the short-term with the long-term.

We’ve all seen how quickly a standard five-year plan can fall apart. As we move into 2021, only time will tell if our current plans will make it through unscathed.

Students may (understandably) feel apathetic about creating detailed plans for the future in this climate. As a teacher, you have the power to inspire them to figure out where they want to end up in the future, how they’re going to get there, and how they can prepare to pivot if their plans fall apart.

Explore multiple career options with your students

2020 showed us that we need to think differently. Instead of following traditional high school-to-college or high school-to-work pathways, encourage your students to imagine what their ideal day-to-day post-graduation life might look like, and then think outside the box about how to get there. 

Ask your college-bound students:

  1. Does this career actually require a college degree? (Some companies, like Microsoft and Google, have their own certification courses that are much more economical than a four-year degree.)
  2. Can you enroll in local community college classes to get a feel for what majoring in this subject will actually be like?
  3. What are three academic skills you want to improve before you start your college career? (Don’t forget about important soft skills like email communication and time management!)

And for those not planning on going to college:

  1. What highly-respected certification courses exist for this field?
  2. Are you planning to start your own business? If so, what courses (free or paid) in marketing, business management, web design, etc. can you find?
  3. What are three steps you can take now to jumpstart your career as soon as you graduate?

Getting your students’ ideal life spelled out can help them figure out how their desired career path will fit into their daily reality.

Make an actionable (and malleable!) plan for the future

Once your students have a general long-term plan mapped out, move on to the short-term:

  1. What do you plan to accomplish within this year? What about within six months? Within four weeks?
  2. Think of three ways this plan could go wrong. How can you adapt to these situations?

Creating a short-term plan that aligns with your students’ long-term goals will give your students actionable steps to take immediately following graduation. Not only will they be creating a roadmap for themselves to follow once they’ve left the guidance of teachers and school counselors, but they’ll also be giving themselves the confidence to believe that accomplishing their goals, even in an uncertain environment, is possible. 

4. Remind your students that anything can change in a year…even for the better.

It’s not clear whether 2021 will follow in 2020’s uncertain footsteps. We’ve seen that our entire way of life can change drastically in just a few months, but we’ve also watched communities bond together, seen our work culture adapt to people’s home lives, and learned to value time spent with those closest to us. We know that anything can change…but it’s not always for the worse.

Some of your students may be familiar with Unus Annus, a now-extinct YouTube channel that began in November 2019 and left the internet forever in November 2020. The channel, run by Mark Fischbach (better known as Markiplier) and Ethan Nestor, uploaded vlog content every day for a year, and then deleted it all for good after a final twelve-hour livestream. The two YouTubers hoped to teach a dual lesson…anyone can change their life in the space of one year, and nothing, no matter what, is permanent.

The message is personal to co-host Ethan Nestor, who was a graduating high schooler with an uncertain future back in 2015. He struck a deal with his parents: he would take a gap year to pursue YouTube gaming for twelve months. If that failed, he would go to college.  As of today, he has over two million subscribers.

It’s a fantastic case study in going after your dreams, and although you may not want to encourage your graduating class to place all their hopes in YouTube, it applies equally well to applying to selective universities, making a splash in the workforce right out of high school, or striking out on one’s own as a business owner. 

And hey, maybe it’s no longer the time to dismiss some students’ wilder dreams as impractical – not as long as they’re backed by a solid skill set and a clear plan of action. It’s 2021, after all. Anything can happen.