Like college seniors today, I graduated into a recession where jobs in my chosen field were hard to find. It took three months, but I eventually landed a job. The job market is far more unpredictable this spring.

In search of some optimism and tips for the Class of 2020, I talked with several PR leaders over the past week. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear much optimism about PR job prospects for the remainder of this year. The COVID-19 crisis hit as the profession was enjoying a couple years of solid growth by most agencies as well as increasing demand for newly minted PR grads.

Even when the economic free-for-all starts to rebound, nobody expects a return to boom times. In fact, The Economist magazine this week predicts the “new normal” will be a 90% recovery, not a full return to the prosperity we were enjoying before coronavirus invaded our lives.

Among the PR leaders providing perspective, Weber Shandwick’s Executive Chairman Andy Polansky might be described as a “realistic optimist.” He said, “The job market will be uncertain and challenging for the next few months, though public relations as a sector and career track is holding up a bit better than other marketing disciplines” He added, that all agency and corporate communicators have had to become crisis experts, even those who had been dedicated to marketing communications.

Andy’s advice to students: “Be proactive in your outreach, but with the appropriate tone as many people are struggling personally and professionally during these uncertain times.”

Early in the COVID-19 crisis, Edelman’s CEO Richard Edelman assured employees that there would be “no job losses related to the COVID-19 situation.” The world’s largest agency made the same bet during two earlier recessions and Edelman, indeed, was ready to take off at full speed and with the best talent as the economy improved. Unfortunately, like most other agencies, Edelman reluctantly decided not to run its summer intern program this year. Other firms, including Weber Shandwick, totally shut down internship programs for the time being. Holding company-owned agencies and most other employers adopted reduced hours, furloughs and job cuts for full-time staff and cut back or eliminated internship programs.

One of the only positive developments is the growing recognition of the importance of good corporate communications. Several agencies confirmed their corporate practices are busier now than ever, with many enlisting help from their less-busy consumer teams. In addition, agencies report a growing demand for employee engagement programs as corporations beef up efforts to communicate with their critically important internal teams.

Advice for 2020 Graduates: Volunteer, Gain Experience, Continue Learning

When asked to look into her crystal ball for what is ahead, Carol Gronlund, chief talent officer at Zeno Group, encouraged graduates to continue to be students and observers. “We will all learn through this process – what stands out, what falls short, what happens when well-meaning brands get it wrong, and what happens when brands step up to the challenge of serving the greater good instead of the bottom line. Treat this like a master class and take note of the impact communications can have in a time of crisis.”

If you’re not able to land paid positions right now, Carol encourages you to volunteer to help a local small business manage its social channels or use those amazing writing skills to combat loneliness in our isolated communities like senior centers and hospitals. “Do things that keep your skills sharp,” she said. “It’s good for the soul, benefits our communities and enhances their resumes.”

Carol firmly believes this is a time for communications to shine. She also didn’t get any arguments from me on this point: “The best ideas and most effective solutions are coming from businesses and brands, rather than government. That trust and reliance on business will remain in our collective psyche for a long time to come. Communicators are the gatekeepers of that power and it will further solidify our position as important business consultants.”

And in the coming months, Carol assures us that jobs will emerge. “When I connect with my HR colleagues at PR Council, we’re all talking about this as a pause. Business will come back; budgets will reopen and opportunities for our grads will follow.”

Giving hope to aspiring job seekers, Carol confirmed that agencies need interns and other entry-level staff. “Very often, they are tasked with important work that proves our value to clients, i.e. tracking results and monitoring relevant conversations. That work never goes away,” Carol said. “Be patient and be proactive in reaching out to people in the industry. It’s important to stay connected and keep a pulse on what’s happening so that you can be among the first to know when client engagements are ramping back up.”

Big Idea: PR Council’s Agency Ready Certificate Program

Trying to fill a void created by canceled internships this summer, PR Council, the trade group representing most of the best agencies in the U.S., is planning a unique training program for graduates not able to gain experience through actual internships.

By the end of May, The PR Council will launch a free career portal and Agency-Ready Certificate program. The program will require participation in webinars on topics such as strategic counsel, client service, persuasive writing, applying data, social media strategy, and crisis communications. The program also will include instruction on key tech platforms, as well as inspirational chats with agency leaders and entry-level talent. Knowing that connectivity and networking have never been more important, a number of diverse leaders across the industry have volunteered to volunteer to mentor small groups of aspiring young pros.

Explaining the rationale behind this unique program, PR Council VP Andi Hughes said: “No one knows how long the situation will last, but we do know that the well-trained talent graduating this spring remain the lifeblood of our agencies. We want to get to know them and keep them engaged in pursuing careers in our industry.”

You can register HERE to be among the first to know when the program officially launches.