Landing the first job post-college is exhilarating and emotional while at the same time stressful and exhausting. Adding a pandemic into the mix threatens to upend the process for thousands of new graduates.

For graduates of the EcoCAR Mobility Challenge, the disruption to the hiring and internship processes across the auto industry has brought unexpected challenges, as well as perseverance.

EcoCAR is the U.S. Department of Energy’s current Advanced Vehicle Technology Competition series and the nation’s premier collegiate automotive engineering competition. Managed by Argonne National Laboratory in partnership with the Energy Department and the auto industry, the competitions have served as the industry’s most effective proving ground for developing new talent — seeding the industry with more than 25,000 graduates from 93 universities over their 32-year history.

Nearly half of our graduating class self-identified as being negatively affected by COVID-19 as it related to their post-college employment status, based on a recent survey.

A common frustration is that some internships have been canceled or pushed back and job offers have been rescinded as companies freeze hiring to mitigate losses caused by the pandemic. Other roadblocks include travel bans restricting graduates from taking jobs across borders, fewer job openings and more competition for those jobs.

Also, we’re seeing companies pivot to virtual interviews and networking events, and some internships have gone remote. In fact, Argonne successfully transitioned its 376 summer interns to remote environments, helping future scientists make a positive impact. Remote jobs and internships can add new challenges for students and recent graduates, including:

  • How do I make a great impression during a video interview?
  • How do I develop relationships with people if I’m working remote?
  • My start date was pushed back. What should I do in the meantime?

These are tough questions to answer. Luckily, EcoCAR has many sponsors that treat the competition as a real-world training ground for filling vacancies in their companies. In fact, many companies involved — such as General Motors, MathWorks, NXP, American Axle & Manufacturing and Bosch — are the ones pivoting in this dynamic environment to identify the next generation of mobility talent.

When faced with how to safely accommodate more than 500 interns this summer, GM executed a successful program inclusive of virtual and in-person participation that provided students a valuable and safe professional development experience. As GM recruits for its next class of summer interns and entry-level employees, EcoCAR will be one of many key pathways the company uses to engage potential employees and help establish a pipeline of new talent.

EcoCAR organizers and I have been in almost daily communication with participating universities and sponsors to find solutions to the problems brought on by COVID-19. Being in the center of both industry and academia affords us the opportunity to identify the most pressing issues from both sides of the aisle and propose solutions.

In normal times, job seekers and recruiters would connect during one of EcoCAR’s many in-person networking events to discuss open positions, share portfolios and build relationships. With in-person events off the table this fall, we identified ways to connect students with prospective employers. We ramped up virtual recruiting webinars and career prep sessions, continued facilitating personal introductions and mentoring opportunities and revised our recruiting tools to better match talent with relevant positions.

We’re identifying and implementing new opportunities to showcase the value proposition of hiring a student who has participated in EcoCAR. Students receive firsthand training that mirrors the industry’s product development process while becoming proficient in the many software tools and hardware applications they’ll use post-graduation.

I would advise those seeking employment in the automotive industry to utilize leadership tools and communication skills they’ve gained through EcoCAR. In the absence of in-person networking, practice your virtual personal sales pitch and hone your digital professional presence to reflect all that you have to offer.

My recommendation to hiring executives is to evaluate your recruitment process as the landscape has drastically changed during the pandemic. Lean into your network to make connections in the absence of attending events. Empower your recruiters to develop new ways of identifying the right talent virtually. Most importantly, be flexible. Don’t let process or tradition get in the way of landing incredible talent.