By Gabe Bullard

WAMU Public Radio

This article is part of Coronavirus in the D.C. Region series.

Sophie Desmond went out one day last week for an essential activity. It wasn’t to buy groceries, get medicine or care for a loved one, the kinds of things most of us have left home for during the pandemic. She had an in-person job interview.

“They reached out to shake my hand,” she says, “and we all at the same time went: ‘Nevermind.’”

Desmond and her potential employers sat at arm’s length around a conference table. The conversation itself wasn’t out of the ordinary, she says, except she made sure to ask about the office policy for sick leave and when her medical benefits would take effect. They were the kinds of questions that might seem presumptuous for an initial interview under other circumstances.

“They didn’t really flinch,” Desmond says. “It was a good experience. I think it went well.”

Now, just a week later, a face-to-face interview that doesn’t involve a webcam seems like something from a different era. Health experts and public officials strongly discourage engaging in many of the standard elements of an interview — leaving the house, giving a hearty handshake, having a conversation across a desk.

“We’ve seen in past downturns that what many employers have done is double down on college degrees and pedigrees,” says the founder of a nonprofit that helps build job skills. (S. Pflug/Burst)

“A lot more interviews are turning into Zoom sessions,” says Tony Lee, an executive career coach at Your Next Jump, a Fairfax-based job-search company. But that’s to the extent that interviews are happening at all. Lee says a surge in recruiting in February has slowed. ”A lot of job seekers are noticing that the job application process has been halted,” he says, as employers adjust to working remotely and the economy declines.

Simultaneously, some workers are reluctant to look for new jobs. Jennifer Chestnut, a senior recruiting consultant with D.C.-based Helios HR, says some of her clients are hesitant about conducting job interviews via phone, and others who are further in the process aren’t sure they want to start a new job virtually. “We’ve had people on the books that were scheduled to start next Monday, and they’ve asked to push their start date back to June,” she says.

The combination of a public health crisis and an economic downturn has put employers and would-be employees on uncertain footing. It has led to thousands of Washingtonians losing their jobs and filing for unemployment benefits, part of a record number of such filings nationwide. This was first felt in service industries, like restaurants and other businesses that were largely shut down and laid off staff they couldn’t afford to pay. It’s not clear how long the situation will last, but each new week of social distancing brings new challenges for more industries. How employers absorb and recover from these challenges could change not only who gets jobs, but how they get them.

“It’s very uneven. There are employers and there are job categories where people are still hiring,” says Byron Auguste, founder and CEO of Opportunity@Work, a company that focuses on building job skills. But Auguste predicts that some of these businesses will curtail hiring as the pandemic grinds on. “Certainly temporarily, and in some cases long term, there’s going to be a lot of jobs destroyed,” Auguste says, adding that some fields — remote training and education, for instance — will grow in the long-term.

During this slowdown, Auguste, Lee and Chestnut encourage those who can to work on building relevant skills and finding ways to show them off on their resumes. Lee, particularly, says if firms aren’t hiring, this is a good time to build connections and references (remotely) and to prepare to apply when hiring starts again.

Not every industry is shrinking, though. Walmart, Amazon and a number of grocery stores have announced major hiring pushes. To speed hiring, Walmart is even accepting applications via text message. And biotechnology and related fields are poised to grow as well.

Auguste says the current situation should be a wake-up call for businesses to change the way they hire. For instance, rather than fill needed openings with new workers, companies could consider promoting from within and bringing in new workers in entry-level jobs.

“Organizations like [Amazon], they have a tremendous opportunity to find that talent in their frontline workforce and bring them up into higher-paid, higher-skilled jobs over time,” Auguste says. And he’d like any stimulus package that clears Congress to offer incentives to businesses to keep staff on their payroll and “train them up for the jobs they’re going to need them to be doing on the other end of this crisis.” (Lawmakers are voting on a stimulus that offers some money for job training in the medical field.)

But if the downturn does lead to more white-collar workers losing their jobs, the outlook for a recovery isn’t necessarily rosy, no matter how many skills applicants have developed.

“We’ve seen in past downturns that what many employers have done, is really doubled-down on college degrees and pedigrees,” Auguste says. “They think they can be pickier.”

This means adding new skills or education requirements to jobs because the pool of applicants has grown. Someone who was, on paper, qualified for a job in 2019 may not meet the listed qualifications in 2021. At the same time, college enrollment increases during recessions, further increasing competition. Those who navigated the 2008 recession may remember that soon after the master’s degree was declared “the new bachelor’s.”

And with more people applying for jobs, Auguste says companies tend to filter resumes by focusing on certain degrees or schools.

“The way they should be whittling those down is much more based on indicators of skill,” he says. “Employers that have stabilized and are still hiring really face a choice.”

Employees who have the option may also be pickier. Desmond — the participant in last week’s in-person job interview — says the outbreak has shown that many benefits, like the ability to work remotely, aren’t perks, but necessities.

“Employers are going to have to be really flexible and open to change,” Desmond says.

“Hopefully it will open their eyes,” says senior recruiting consultant Jennifer Chestnut. “This is the future of working.”

Desmond acknowledges that she’s in a pretty good spot (she got an offer for the job she interviewed for). Her concerns about the benefits a future employer might offer are less grave than the concerns out-of-work Washingtonians are facing today.

“I have to make rent and find health insurance, but there are people in far more precarious situations then I am. It’s pretty bleak out there,” she says. “I need to make a living, but right now hanging on to my people, my family and friends and neighbors, is more valuable to me than being a perfect job candidate.”

And the definition of a perfect job candidate, and a perfect job, will be much different when the crisis subsides.

Gabe Bullard is a senior editor at WAMU. Prior to joining the newsroom, he was the director of digital content for WAMU’s 1A, and a member of the team that helped launch the show.

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