With unemployment at unprecedented levels and college campuses vacant due to stay-at-home orders, it can be a scary time to graduate. How exactly do you join the workforce when the world around you seems to be falling apart?
The ArtCenter College of Design, one of the most prestigious art and design schools in the country, helped its graduating students get some face time with potential employers by converting its in-person job fair to be completely online.
On April 30, ArtCenter hosted its first virtual job fair with more than 204 students and 97 companies, including Netflix, Nike, Google, IBM, Disney, and more. Instead of walking up to an employer booth or doing an in-person interview, students met with potential employers within the confines of a computer screen. Like a lot of new remote processes, the virtual job fair had some tech challenges the first go-around. But considering the kinks, both students and recruiters were able to make solid connections—whether or not that translates to a job in the near future remains to be seen.
Colleges are closed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year, and many are either canceling events they had already scheduled or reimagining that event as a remote experience. Art and design schools have to be especially inventive as they consider new ways to showcase their students’ creativity—a fuzzy skill that doesn’t always translate as neatly concrete test scores and other metrics. The School of Visual Arts in New York City will be hosting its annual commencement ceremony and MFA product of design thesis presentations online; the College for Creative Studies in Detroit has an online 2020 Graduating Student Showcase and virtual job fair; Parsons the New School of Design School of Fashion partnered with design studio Saint Heron, founded by Solange Knowles, to create an “immersive virtual festival” called “Here and Now” that will include thesis presentations, portfolio reviews, lectures, workshops, film screenings, and more, and will run through August. The corresponding, publicly available website is scheduled to launch in July and will act as a repository to showcase student theses and capstone work long term.
In some ways, the coronavirus is accelerating a process that was already underway as both students and companies embraced virtual recruitment. At ArtCenter, officials had already had conversations about creating a digital platform for graduating students, according to provost Karen Hofmann, simply as a sign of the times.
But “the future has come at us like a bullet train,” she said, and forced the school to reinvent the wheel—quickly. They landed on a third-party app called Highre for the virtual recruitment fair called ArtCenter Connections: A Virtual Networking Event, and a Grad Show website developed in-house by faculty Sean Adams and Maggie Hendrie along with a team of additional faculty from the Interaction Design and Graphic Design departments, which the school used for the commencement ceremony and as repository to host profiles and work of graduating students.
The format for the job fair was similar to what you might experience in person: Companies gave presentations and met for one-on-one interviews with students they were most interested in, having seen portfolios in advance. But it was also very different: Those interviews are now timed and conducted through a screen.
The format highlighted some uncomfortable truths. “I find the video interface kind of awkward,” says Anna Kvorning, the head of staffing at LAIKA, the animation studio behind films like Coraline. Kvorning’s direct reports, Angela Geier and Amy Hurwitz, participated in the job fair to recruit interns for the studio—they typically hire 10 to 20 a year. Though the studio is used to conducting remote interviews since it is based in Portland, Oregon, and not L.A., being part of a virtual fair with other recruiters was new. Her team had a tough time with the 10-minute interview format, which she said would end without warning and, therefore, sometimes rather abruptly and without the usual pleasantries you experience with an in-person interview. David Chan, a grad student who participated in the job fair, said there was a small countdown clock but agreed the abrupt cutoff sometimes made for hurried goodbyes. (Amanda Webb, director of career & professional development for ArtCenter, confirmed there was a visible clock.)
Kvorning says she has two main takeaways, and has given similar feedback to other schools: “Prep students to interview in a virtual space and tweak the computer experience,” she says, with things like a two-minute warning to let participants know a meeting was ending.
The video format makes your outward appearance and surrounding environment very obvious, so students need to prepare accordingly. Kvorning suggested small tweaks: “Make sure you show up professionally and that the same prep goes into it as seeing people in person. Put on a nice shirt, introduce yourself, and be present,” she says. “They’re all going to have virtual interviews in the future,” says Kvorning, so they might as well practice—you’re meeting with a potential employer after all, and this is how you’ll meet them for the foreseeable future.
For his part, Chan felt prepped for his interviews with the set of resources ArtCenter provided prior to the fair. Chan says he received emails from the college with links to a dedicated career development page, remote résumé reviews, tips on building meaningful a LinkedIn profile, and more. While Chan saw some home connectivity challenges (and some personal ones: he and his wife are working and studying from home with kids), he still had five one-on-one interviews in addition to attending general informational morning sessions hosted by participating companies. Chan has had at least some follow-up with all five companies, though two told him they weren’t actively hiring.
Will “exposure,” that word loathed by unpaid interns everywhere, translate into job offers?
Kvorning tells me LAIKA has pushed its internship program to the fall and hasn’t made any offers as of yet. Though she’s used to working remotely from Denmark, coronavirus has posed new challenges. “What I’ve found to be the trickiest is when do you start the hiring process?” she tells me. Considering restrictions on international travel, and work, and even anxiety about both of those things, Kvorning wonders if people will even want to travel once they’re able to. There are “too many unknowns,” she says. And from prospective employee to employer, everyone is trying to rapidly adapt.
Chan tells me that although he won’t start actively applying to positions until his wife, who is an instructor, is off for the summer, he used the fair to network and build some momentum to get back into the work world. ArtCenter is also inviting recent grads to sit in on certain classes this summer and work with faculty to complete projects they might have been pulled away from when campus closed, “providing a flexible way they can continue their path and finish their portfolios,” says Hofmann.
Hofmann considers the experience a springboard that will change how ArtCenter does recruitment fairs for the long term. And though the event was only one day, recruiters can refer to the Grad Show site, which the school has shifted to from Highre, to see student work on an ongoing basis. Hofmann is also in regular conversation with with provosts at CalArts and Otis College of Art and Design. So whatever the event looked like this time around, v 2.0 will probably look like something else entirely.