May 9—When the coronavirus pandemic hit last spring and the University of Southern Maine shut down campus, Emma Walsh went home to her parents' house in Readfield.
For the last year she's been continuing to take most of her classes from home and completed two remote internships. On Saturday she graduated from home in a virtual ceremony and soon will head to an internship where she has yet to meet her future boss in person.
"It just doesn't feel real to me because I'm at home in that same environment," said Walsh, 20. "Normally when you're in situations like this you're going into the office for an interview or you're at the graduation ceremony. You have those external surroundings to prove to you that it's real."
Walsh is among thousands of college students in Maine who will be heading into a workforce that has changed significantly over the last year. While the coronavirus upended the job search process and outlook for graduating seniors in 2020, career services staff and students on Maine campuses said in most cases things have gone more smoothly this year and there are even some positive changes that have come out of the pandemic.
"Things are much, much different than they were a year ago, when it kind of felt like the sky was falling down a little bit," said Andrew Osheroff, operations manager at the Career and Employment Hub at the University of Southern Maine. "Now I think folks have really adjusted, both the employer community and students, to a new normal of doing everything virtually."
After a dismal year for job hunting last year, outlook for graduating seniors is improving. Employers are planning to hire 7.2 percent more new college graduates from the Class of 2021 than the Class of 2020, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. That's a sharp increase from fall 2020, when employers were expecting to slightly reduce college hiring.
"That same picture is really what we're seeing on the ground here as well in Maine," Osheroff said. "Certainly many folks are hiring. Internships for summer are in full swing, although there are some challenges particularly in industries that have been hard hit by the pandemic."
Alex Brovender, a physics and math major at Bates College, wasn't sure what to expect when he started his job search. In the past, Brovender said if he applied to a job he felt "like a faceless person" and his chance of getting an interview was low, but this past year has made it easier to connect virtually. "If I'm here in Maine and I'm looking for jobs in Boston, I don't need to go grab a cup of coffee with someone, I can just jump on Zoom," he said.
Connecting students to work, employers and alumni has been made easier by the pandemic in some ways, said Allen Delong, senior associate dean for purposeful work at Bates. "Employers are recruiting with technology," Delong said. "They were already headed in that direction but now it's 100 percent recruiting via Zoom and students are really good at that."
In the past, if the college wanted to connect students with alumni they might have held an in-person event or discussion. "That's really tough to pull off in Maine in the winter, especially if you're asking people from say, the Bay area, to come to Maine. There are so many things involved in that," Delong said.
Now, he said, "Our alumni are like, 'You're asking me for 90 minutes on a Tuesday night and I can do it from the comfort of my own home?' I will absolutely be part of this program.'"
A Zoom interview or event comes with its own set of challenges, however, and Shanna Webster, assistant dean and director of the Academic Center for Excellence at Saint Joseph's College, said the staff there spent a lot of time this year coaching students on how to prepare for the virtual interview and convey soft skills in a nontraditional environment.
"Post-COVID, this is probably the world in which we're going to see things progress," Webster said. "We've been focused on making sure they understand the importance of a follow-up communication and even though you can't shake someone's hand, how do you develop the connection you would if you were sitting in the same room?"
Walsh, the USM student, tapped into a network she built from her earlier internships to get a summer internship with Portland-based Marin Skincare. "Even though in the job search process you're maybe not going into the office for an interview, you can still reach out to people and say, 'Can we have a video chat and I can ask you a few questions?'" she said.
Some students have been offered remote opportunities and have never met the people they'll be working for or with. There is a sense, though, of wanting to return to at least some in-person work.
Brovender was hired at Hopjump, a tech startup in Boston, and was told the company anticipated being able to have anyone who wanted to be able to return to in-person office work midsummer. "I will say there were tons of times I wished I could have been working in person," he said of his experience working a remote internship last summer. "I would have loved to meet my co-workers, go grab a beer or some food after work. I'm looking forward to that now."
Keenan Hendricks, a USM senior, has two job offers and an internship he's choosing from in digital marketing, two of which would be remote. "I think I would like to get out of the house and get out and about a little bit," said Hendricks, 23. At the same time, a remote position means he could travel. "If I choose to go that route (of working remotely) I have the opportunity to travel and also still be employed and work and be in whatever location I want to," Hendricks said.
For Beckett Asselin, a senior at Maine College of Art, the job search process has been complicated by a planned cross-country move to Portland, Oregon, where her partner lives. Asselin, 20, made a trip to Oregon in January, but hasn't been back due to school and the pandemic. "Things are still pretty difficult," said Asselin, a graphic design major looking for a job in advertising.
Asselin said many companies she's looked at still aren't offering internships because of the pandemic and she doesn't have the three to five years of experience she's seen for many entry-level jobs. "Originally I really wanted a job lined up for when I get there, but at this point it's realistically looking like I'll find something when I get there," she said.
On the upside, Asselin said she's also noticed more companies offering remote opportunities, so she could move to Portland but expand her search outside the city. "I think the pandemic from what I've seen has pushed more companies to have remote opportunities that wouldn't otherwise be there, so I think that's something I'm looking forward to," she said. "Worst-case scenario, if it's not in Portland, I can now find a job elsewhere because companies are now adjusted to that."