Working During and After COVID-19: Interview with Dr. Jennifer Bechkoff & Karen Cowan

  Amira Hijazi
North Carolina State University
  Abigail Lindner
Regent University

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted economies and workplaces around the world. In these anxious times, we spoke to Prof. Jennifer Bechkoff and Karen Cowan to hear their insights on how students can prepare for work in industry and what to expect during and after COVID-19.

Q: What industries would you say have been most impacted by COVID-19 and will likely see recruiting changes as a result?

Cowan: There are some obvious ones that you probably are aware of like aviation, travel, tourism, and hospitality. Those are definitely struggling - a lot of furloughs, a lot of layoffs. There’s a trickle effect, of course, as then the suppliers of those businesses are affected; for example, the linen services for hospitality.

One industry that has done surprisingly well is sporting goods as people are getting outdoors more. Two months ago my step-son’s company had the best month they’ve had in five years, and the month after that they surpassed that. Then, of course, pharmaceuticals have endured because people still need their medications and the research labs are taking off because now there’s an acute need for testing and vaccines. Phone service and video technology are experiencing increased demand thanks to the need to work from home. The shift to shop at home has led to more business for shipping companies like Amazon and Instacart.

In terms of recruiting changes, you have so many people you have to furlough and lay-off and, when conditions return to “normal”, you have to go back and rehire those people, but those workers may have gone off in the meantime and started new jobs.

Q: Do you expect more positions to transition into remote or partly remote working roles after the pandemic? Will this affect the work of recruiters?

Cowan: Companies are really trying to accommodate people. Fortune 500 companies and other businesses with lots of employees will likely continue working remote until some kind of resolution has happened. More people are able to work remote than ever before and they will continue those remote jobs while they can. Companies used to be against remote working because they didn’t believe that people would be productive outside of the office. However, the shift in working environments caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that remote working is possible for many employees. Moving forward i expect that there will be larger percentage of companies making remote work possible for employees.

For recruiters, when you have an organization with more remote positions, those positions can be filled anywhere in the country. If people don’t have to physically come into an office, they can come from anywhere, which widens the talent base. Maybe the perfect person is in Connecticut while the company is in California. With remote work, that match could happen. I know a common complaint in recruiting is “oh, they won’t relocate”, but we’ll have less of that situation now.

What I think we’re going to see as a result of the transition to remote working is a decay in office culture - increased isolation, distractions, a blurring of work and home life, and less camaraderie. That’s going to be an opportunity for consulting firms and human resources departments to put together training sessions, and for the management teams to make sure that this is something that we can do on a virtual basis.

Q: How can students adapt to the COVID-19 job market?

Bechkoff: Many companies are in a hiring “chill” so it’s going to be tough, but I encourage students to not feel defeated. If you are actively seeking a job, you should first focus your energy on industries that are faring well during this crisis, such as healthcare, social work/counseling, grocery, eCommerce, biotech, gaming, cycling, home office, home fitness, home improvement, telecom, sports equipment, pharmaceuticals, entertainment streaming, and communications. Don’t be afraid to expand the geographical location of your search as there are many telecommuting jobs available that don’t require the employee to live in the company’s location.

Q: What should candidates be aware of when interviewing via video vs. in person? What can they do to present themselves as the best candidate?

Bechkoff: There are two types of video interviews: One-way and two-way. For a one-way video interview, you have the chance to prepare your answers (if given them ahead of time) to record for the interview. Responses should be rehearsed to portray confidence and eloquence. For a two-way video interview, body language is important. Sit up straight, don’t lean, smile, and be cognizant of your tone so you sound enthusiastic. Two-way video interviews tend to be shorter than in-person interviews, so it’s important to create a bond as soon as possible; make sure you have thoroughly researched both the company and the interviewer so you have something with which to start that dialogue.

For all video interviews, it is important that you still dress business formal (from head to toe!), check your technology ahead of time, use a computer (not a phone), remove distractions (people/pets), center the camera to your eyes, make sure you fill the frame (don’t leave dead space above your head), avoid earbuds unless you’re forced to take the interview in public, have the lighting in front of you (rather than behind you), and move the video window close to the webcam so when you’re looking at the interviewer in the video window, it appears to the interviewer as if you’re looking directly at him/her.

In order to present yourself as the best candidate, you have to be likable, communicate clearly, and elicit confidence. By the time you’ve secured an interview, the company already knows your qualifications and deems them sufficient; thus, the interview is no longer about your qualifications, but rather all about you. Are you a good fit? Are you somebody with whom their employees will want to work side-by-side? Are you going to add value to the company? The interview is the time to practice your very best soft skills. Show them that your hard skills are only part of the package. It’s time to shine.

Cowan: It’s important to remember the three P’s: Prepare, Practice, Present. When you’re using Zoom, or similar technology, there is always the potential to run into technical problems. It’s a good idea to go on at least ten minutes before time to do a trial run. Start a personal video chat and adjust the camera, check the lighting, and remove distracting decor so that nothing detracts from you, the candidate. Make sure that the camera is positioned so that it looks like you’re looking at the interviewer. Practice speaking so the volume is right and prepare all the logistics on that end.

Then just prepare the way you would for any interview. Present yourself professionally, fixing your hair, checking your teeth (!), and dressing appropriately. Be ready to give examples of how you were successful, how you solved a problem.

Q: For students who have lost or had postponed internship and job opportunities, what skills would you recommend they develop now to be competitive against other qualifying candidates?

Bechkoff: If you have extra time on your hands, you should definitely upskill right now. There are a plethora of free classes available online. Classes that help you obtain extra certifications or gain more depth of knowledge in your particular field of interest are obviously useful; but, also consider taking classes outside of your major in an area that marries well with your primary field of study. For example, a marketing major might consider taking some psychology courses or an operations researcher might consider taking some communications courses. Also, make sure to learn as many productivity tools as possible; remote collaboration tools (Slack, Microsoft Teams, SharePoint, G Suite), video chat programs (Zoom, Skype, WebEx, GoogleHangouts, GoToMeeting), and CRM services (Salesforce, HubSpot). These will add to your remote work skills to make you more marketable. And always, always brush up on your soft skills.

Cowan: Students need to be flexible and adaptable. If they can develop skills in or show examples of critical thinking and problem solving, companies love to see that. For recent students or workers returning to the labor force, you could look at your skill set or major and ask, “What can I do to expand that?” Maybe you take a digital marketing course or a social media course. If you could get a certification or a continuing education class to hone those skills and show initiative while in transition, companies will be impressed. Data analytics is really becoming hot right now, so that would be a great skill to learn and put in a resume.

Q: How can students build connections with potential employers during the present circumstances? Since the traditional networking events, i.e career fairs and conferences, have been canceled, what other online sources are available?

Bechkoff: The first thing you should do is to reach out to your current connections via phone/email and start a dialogue. Networking involves nurturing relationships. Start slow and think long-term. Do NOT ask anyone for a job. 

Next, join professional organizations where you’ll meet like-minded people. Every field has several prominent organizations. It’s an easy way to get to know people who work in your field or in your community.

Finally, reach out to those who work in your field or work for companies of interest. Start slow by commenting on a post of theirs or by sharing something they’ve written. Make good use of LinkedIn. Then, you can “cold call” potential contacts by sending them an email with an explicit ask. Explain what caught your attention about them or their work and make the ask in a way that can be answered with a yes or no answer. For example, ``My name is A and I really admire your work on B. I’m interested in learning more about C and was hoping you’d be willing to provide some insights from your experience. If you’re open to it, I’d love to video chat to ask you some questions and learn more about C. Would it be possible for us to meet via Zoom?'' Nobody likes doing this, but if you want to expand your professional network, this is another way to do it. Start connecting with as many people as you can.

Q: What else would you like to say to job seekers?

Bechkoff: Finding a job under the current economic condition is going to be tough, but not impossible. The market is extremely competitive so be prepared to put in the work. If possible, avoid the applicant tracking system and apply through contacts within the company. Personal connections, remote job skills, and excellent soft skills will be the keys to your success.

  Prof. Bechkoff serves as Associate Professor of Marketing & Business Analytics at San Jose State University and chairs the Marketing & Business Analytics Curriculum Committee and the Lucas College of Business Undergraduate Curriculum Committee. She has taught classes on marketing research, soft skills, business research and communication, and consumer behavior.
  Karen Cowan is a senior management professional who has worked in staffing and workforce management for over 25 years. She has experience in numerous sectors, including healthcare and IT, and has demonstrated strategic leadership to build high-performance teams and develop strong business partnerships and workforce solutions.