Labor Leads

June/July 2020 View more

By Christie Willhite

For so many who have lost jobs or fear a layoff is looming, the pandemic is particularly scary. Health concerns are suddenly tangled up with questions of economic survival: How do I pay the bills? How do I find a job when businesses are closed? How do I compete with 30 million other people looking for work?

Searching for a job is daunting in the best circumstances. But even amid Illinois’ social distancing rules, would-be workers can find coaching, networking opportunities, training, extended support, and—ultimately—a new position.

“The thing we teach our clients—and that was true before and still is now—is stay engaged, be proactive, and make your job search your full-time job,” says Kimberly White, executive director of the Naperville-based Career and Networking Center.

The nonprofit organization has been helping workers make career transitions since 1992, with a broad slate of offerings, from one-on-one job search coaching to networking and accountability groups to self-care seminars and leadership development.

“These are very challenging times,” White says. “Folks need to continue to look at what they bring to the table and think about how to transition those skills into multiple industries.”

March alone saw a 33.6 percent increase in unemployed workers in Illinois—a figure largely attributable to the first two weeks of the state’s shelter-at-home order, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

“This is an unprecedented time that we’re going through,” IDES spokesman Sam Salustro says. “In the first five weeks, we had more claims than in all of last year. This is five times greater than the Great Depression. The speed and velocity is astounding.”

Not surprisingly, the sectors hit hardest initially were professional services, manufacturing, and leisure and hospitality, according to IDES reports. And White says the Career and Networking Center has begun hearing from entrepreneurs who have seen their customer base shrink or disappear.

Yet some industries and job categories are growing in this new-look economy, says DuPage County Board member Tim Elliott, who chairs the county’s Economic Development Committee.

“There are growth sectors, and we want to make sure people are aware of them,” he says. “Customer service, sales, retail at the big-box level, transportation, and warehouse operations. All the types of businesses that are remaining open, they are actively searching for employees.”

Northeastern Illinois has thousands of job openings in customer service, healthcare, software development, and information technologies—a particularly strong sector with businesses and school systems operating virtually, says Lisa Schvach, executive director of workNet DuPage, a partnership of government agencies and employment services.

Workers may need to reach beyond their previous industry to find employment, advises Schvach.

“The big tip we give to people is to examine their transferrable skills,” she says. “If you’re transitioning from hospitality, you don’t need to limit your search to only to hospitality jobs. Cast a wide net. You probably have good customer service skills, and probably good soft skills that would apply in a different role.”

Job search coaches can help people figure out how their skills would be valued in a different industry or can guide job seekers toward training that would help them enter a new industry or move up the ladder.

Through workNet DuPage, people can access federal grants of up to $10,000 per person for training and certification programs, Schvach says, through its Layoff to Launch program.

“If you’re looking to transition from a layoff and use a training grant to increase your earning potential and to get into new careers, that will really change the trajectory,” she says. “A layoff is not an end. You may be able to come out stronger by acquiring a certification.”

Training grants through workNet were in place well before the federal government enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and will continue after the pandemic, Schvach says.

Under the act, Salustro says, workers who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic are eligible for extended unemployment benefits. Typically, those eligible for unemployment receive payments for 26 weeks at an amount determined by their previous salary. The CARES Act adds $600 to the weekly benefit through the end of July. Also, unemployed workers can receive payments for an additional 13 weeks, for a total of 39 weeks.

Benefits also are being paid to workers who typically aren’t eligible, such as self-employed and contract workers, Salustro says.

Even once the pandemic passes, a new normal may emerge that incorporates more telecommuting. Schvach says a greater acceptance of remote work could open up jobs for people who have been limited by mobility, transportation, or childcare issues.

And White suggests such changes to commuting needs could improve employees’ work-life balance.

“Right now, people are getting used to being around their families and still getting work done,” she says. “Employers will have to look at their infrastructure. How can we streamline things so families can be together? Maybe we have Joe work at home two days a week so he can take a walk with his kids and be connected at home, not just to work.”

Search Strategies

There’s no getting around it: Searching for a job during a pandemic is tough. Career coaches say there are a few strategies that can help you. Kimberly White, executive director of the Career and Networking Center, and Lisa Schvach, executive director of workNet DuPage, offer some practical advice:

Take advantage of coaching and counseling

“We see people who have been in the same role for 20-plus years,” Schvach says. “If that was last time you looked for a job, there’s a lot you need to know about how an online job search is conducted. Our team can impart how to tell your story accurately, how to network, how to find the hidden job market.”

Counselors are continuing to work with job seekers in online coaching sessions. They can help you plan your search, assess your skills, help you select industries and companies to focus on, and help you polish your pitch and interview skills.

Like so much now, even interviews will be conducted in virtual meetings. Plan for that, White says.

“When you’re meeting with a potential employer virtually, what does that look like? Literally,” she says. “What’s behind you? Are you prepared? We’re even going to look at lighting in your room and how it makes you look.”


Both workNet DuPage and the Career and Networking Center have moved their networking sessions and job clubs online because they’re so essential for job-hunting success. The first virtual networking session workNet DuPage offered drew nearly 100 participants, Schvach says. White is seeing 30 to 50 people on weekly networking calls.

“Look for opportunities to virtually network. You have to feel confident talking to people and letting them know you’re in a search,” White says. “It really comes down to the networking piece.”

Use the time to your advantage

“This is the time to really do all the research. You’re home. Do as much research as possible on industries, on target companies,” White says. “Even if you’re happy with your current position, take time to do research.”

Stay in the job market

“Employers and hiring managers look for someone who has tried to continue to do something during their job search,” White says. “I have had people take jobs at Amazon, Starbucks, or as an Uber driver. People have to do what they need to do to offset income loss. Hiring managers will appreciate that. Unemployment doesn’t cover everything.”