People clapping in audience at conference
Students & Youth

Networking as a young person in the age of COVID-19

Last week, I found myself at a three-day conference with an estimated 3,000 people in attendance. As a remote worker living in a one-bedroom office space and living space, interacting with that many people came in stark contrast to my usual routine.

Most of my days consist of exchanging air with my fittonia plant (the only other living being in my apartment) and working through problems with my virtual team of three. Being in a room with thousands of people was equal parts electrifying and draining. I suspect that large social gatherings will take some getting used to for even the most social people, and that’s okay.

As we navigate what we hope to be the tail-end of the pandemic, I am mindful that networking opportunities may be uniquely challenging for youth. Building and strengthening professional networks are key components of career development that many young people have not had the opportunity to develop during the pandemic, as deep disruptions have impacted their career and/or education trajectories. Networking experiences such as symposiums, summits or conferences could be a first-time experience for many young people in the workforce.

Léandre Nawej will be co-presenting with Ikem Opara on “Strengthening Canada’s Youth Sector Through Data/Knowledge Sharing” at CERIC’s hybrid Cannexus conference, taking place Jan. 23-25, 2023. Learn more and register at cannexus.ceric.ca.

In my case, the world of conferences is not unfamiliar territory; however, navigating them as a manager with the expectation and authority to speak on behalf of the organization I work for is a new experience. Pre-pandemic, I participated in numerous conferences and events of that nature, but I usually sported the label of “student” or “youth ambassador.” Participating in these events as a professional has brought an added layer of complexity to the networking experience for me. Like any skill, it requires practice and artistry.

Pandemic life has meant that we have all been deprived of the opportunity to debate, ideate and collaborate in large, 3-D forums, so being gentle and compassionate with each other as we brush up on old skills or develop new ones is crucial. Being gentle, in my view, means creating space for awkward silence, forgiving misspoken words and giving ourselves permission to step out of conversations when they become too taxing.

In addition to gentleness, we can be more courageous, which may take on different forms for different people. With respect to racialized folks like myself, courage can look like taking up space and refuting the hallmarks of imposter syndrome. According to Harvard Business Review, “networking can be especially challenging for professionals of color, who may not only experience general discomfort, but also face unique challenges from not being perceived as powerful, credible, or resourceful — this deficit-based assessment often results in less outreach and relationship-building.” It may be hard to enjoy cocktail hour when you have that discomfort playing in the back of your mind, but it is especially important for young, racialized professionals to affirm themselves and dance in and out of conversations that they are meant to partake in. We all – regardless of race, sex, gender or age – deserve to participate in professional networking sessions fully.

“Being gentle, in my view, means creating space for awkward silence, forgiving misspoken words and giving ourselves permission to step out of conversations when they become too taxing.”

The importance of networks and networking cannot be overstated – research shows that 80% of jobs are filled through networks and 70% of jobs are never publicly advertised. Without a solid foundation of professional contacts to expose you to new opportunities or to vouch for your character and qualifications, young people stand to lose well before they begin their job hunt. This is especially true for vulnerable youth who, according to a report by the Government of Canada, often lack the social networks that are essential for career mobility. The report goes on to say that securing and growing within a job requires “skills like financial literacy, critical thinking, collaboration and the ability to network.”

At the onset of the pandemic, in May 2020, the Canadian youth unemployment rate peaked at a whopping 28.8%. While the youth unemployment rate has come down since then, the concern for youth entering the workforce remains steady with the pandemic’s impact characterized as having long-term scarring effects. Networking is one tool that we can use to smooth out these scars along with other innovative practices. Organizations like CivicAction, GradusOne, Intégration Jeunesse du Québec, Riipen and RADIUS Fellowship understand the power of networking as a lever. They are actively engaged in using network-building, mentorship and amplified learning to help young people find and secure employment.

While I commend these organizations, we need more actors working together to amplify the benefits of networking. Schools, governments and employers alike need to be invested in offering networking opportunities to young professionals.

Over the course of the next few months, my colleagues and I will be taking on this challenge by hosting a series of youth-facing symposiums and conferences for the first time since the pandemic. The goal is to facilitate more opportunities for deep relationship building in a way that is respectful of the anxieties that may exist as social distancing lessens. My hope is that the career development sector moves in this direction, embracing youth in networks that will only be strengthened with their inclusion. The workforce of today and tomorrow depends on it.

Leandre Nawej Author
Léandre Nawej has worked on projects in West Africa, Scandinavia and Canada advancing education equity, youth employment, gender inclusion, and corporate sustainability efforts through governments and NGOs. She supports the Rideau Hall Foundation as Program and Partnerships Coordinator, leading Learning initiatives that serve young Canadians. In her leisure time Léandre enjoys reading, writing and painting in Tiohtià:ke also known as Montreal.
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Leandre Nawej Author
Léandre Nawej has worked on projects in West Africa, Scandinavia and Canada advancing education equity, youth employment, gender inclusion, and corporate sustainability efforts through governments and NGOs. She supports the Rideau Hall Foundation as Program and Partnerships Coordinator, leading Learning initiatives that serve young Canadians. In her leisure time Léandre enjoys reading, writing and painting in Tiohtià:ke also known as Montreal.
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