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Only three weeks after landing her top internship choice with a major tech company in Waterloo, Ont., Nayab Butt received a call informing her that the offer was being rescinded.

“I cried," admitted the 21-year-old University of Waterloo management engineering student. "It sucks to have something given to you and you’re looking forward to it, and then it’s taken away because of circumstances you can’t control.”

Soon after, Ms. Butt says she reached out to her network for help and applied for other internships, but hasn’t been able to find many opportunities. “Because of all the hiring freezes, there’s not that many options to apply to, especially not internships,” she says.

Tips for job-hunting in a pandemic

Ms. Butt isn’t the only one struggling to find a work placement for the summer. According to a recent survey of 50 Canadian employers conducted by career consultancy Brainstorm Strategy Group, 38 per cent of those who were planning on hiring summer students may now reduce or eliminate those positions. Twenty-three per cent are considering cancelling positions they’ve already hired for.

The results are disappointing given that student hiring this year had been poised to exceed 2019, says Graham Donald, president of Brainstorm.

“Last year, 38 per cent of employers increased their summer hiring, whereas only 4 per cent decreased and the rest maintained,” he says. “The forecast wasn’t broken down by season, but 53 per cent of employers said they expected to increase their student hiring this year.”

The government has since announced plans to subsidize summer hiring, covering up to 100 per cent of the provincial or territorial hourly minimum wage, in hopes of creating up to 70,000 summer positions for Canadians aged 15 to 30.

Nevertheless, the economic impact of COVID-19 may continue to affect students long after the pandemic is over. According to previous studies, those who graduate during a recession suffer financial, mental and physical health repercussions that can last decades. That’s because delaying entrance into the work force can have compounding negative effects on their skills development, network development and hands-on experience.

“They will be missing out on potentially key relationships that could move their career forward,” says Irene Galea, the business development and communications manager for Rank My Internship, an anonymous review site for interns and co-op students. “If those students don't have the opportunity to meet people and make connections and network during internships, they might have a much harder time finding permanent work immediately after their graduation.”

Ms. Galea points to a recent study by research institute C.D. Howe to demonstrate the value of such experiences. It found that three years after graduation, those who completed a co-op work placement had annual salaries that were between US$2,000 and US$4,000 higher than their peers. They were also more than 40 per cent more likely to receive a permanent position in their first job after graduation.

While many employers have had to reduce or eliminate positions entirely, the Brainstorm survey found that 64 per cent of them are exploring ways of offering remote training and internship experiences. The strategy can help keep some of those opportunities intact, but those who complete their summer work placement from home could still miss out on invaluable experiences and connections.

“As lucky as they might be to get any kind of job at this time in the middle of a pandemic crisis and are able to work from home – they’d be very fortunate to be able to do that – I think it can still have a long-term impact,” says Mary Barroll, the president of TalentEgg, an online career platform for students. “It will slow their development in many ways in terms of core competencies that employers look for.”

Ms. Barroll explains that employers are putting increased emphasis on soft skills – such as communication, collaboration, problem solving and adaptability – many of which are best developed through real-world work experiences. She believes, however, that there are ways for students to develop some of those skills independently.

She recommends applying for jobs in industries that are hiring right now – such as health care, logistics and e-commerce – using online platforms such as LinkedIn to build professional networks, attending digital networking events, taking online courses and volunteering.

“I heard an employer saying he could envision a day where he asks as an interview question, ‘What did you do during the COVID-19 pandemic?’" she says. "If there’s a way that young people can bring their digital skills to a not-for-profit and support them with social media and other skills, that would be a great answer.”

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