Well before classrooms and conference rooms were traded for Zoom, Penn State’s Career Services had a strong reputation with industry partners eager to connect with sought-after Penn State students—so much so that according to a 2020 survey of the nation’s top corporate college recruiters, Penn State students rank fifth for career preparedness after graduation.
But with the novel coronavirus pandemic removing the option of in-person interviews, career fairs, and even internships, Career Services was faced with what might seem to be a monumental task: facilitating student and industry engagement in an entirely virtual world.
Despite these unprecedented challenges, Career Services rose to the occasion, nimbly and creatively adapting programs to continue to meet both students and industry partners where they are.
Soft skills are the difference-makers
According to Bob Orndorff, director of Career Services, successful virtual offerings are all built on one key, unchanging factor: a strong network of Penn State student talent.
“Our students do a great job of showcasing their integrity, work ethic, and teamwork,” Orndorff said. “This is what makes Penn State stand out, and a major reason why I think recruiters keep coming back—those soft skills are the difference-makers.”
These difference-makers are cultivated long before students come to Career Services thanks to robust educational experiences and involvement across Penn State’s twenty-four campus locations and the online World Campus.
“For example, while there are many skilled engineering students in the talent pool, it’s much harder for recruiters to find a highly skilled engineering student who can tactfully resolve conflicts and is genuinely intrigued by differences,” Orndorff said. “A student who is willing to roll up their sleeves, do other duties as assigned, and then ask, ‘Is there anything else I can do?’ That’s Penn State.”
Connecting industry with students, virtually
While employers and Penn Staters have made use of virtual career fairs, interviews and Nittany Lion Careers (the University-wide recruiting platform that connects industry with students and alumni), Career Services also collaborated with industry partners to develop new hands-on experiences.
These experiences include virtual internships, gig or short-term projects and information sessions where companies provide students from a variety of majors with real-world case studies to explore and solve.
Providing a variety of opportunities to engage with students helps maintain meaningful connections when in-person internships might not be feasible, says Orndorff.
“Increasingly these days, companies want to get students in on an actual challenging case or scenario,” said Orndorff. “These experiences are great for our students to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom and for employers to assess critical thinking and conceptualization skills.”
And for smaller companies who might not have the budget to host an in-person experience, virtual opportunities lower the barrier to entry for engaging with students.
“Students are starting earlier in terms of wanting those hands-on experiences,” Orndorff said. “We’ve found that smaller companies are great for sophomores who want to get a head start through an informal internship or short-term project.”
Taking geography out of the equation
These lower barriers to entry are an unexpected benefit of virtual experiences. Now, industry partners across Pennsylvania and the world have easier access to Penn State’s student talent across all campus locations.
“Virtual experiences take geography out of the equation,” Orndorff said. “Not only did we see a higher percentage and variety of campus participants at our virtual Fall Career Days, but now nonprofits and smaller companies that may not have been able to afford attending in-person events are in the ballgame.”
Orndorff says the lessons learned during the pandemic are well worth a permanent place in Career Services’ lineup.
“We’re providing opportunities for a wider variety of students and companies through virtual means, and we don’t want to lose that when the pandemic is over,” Orndorff said. “We plan to see what’s worked, talk to our partners, and find ways to continue these opportunities along with our in-person career fairs and year-long interviewing program in the Bank of America Career Services Center.”
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