How to Get Your Career Back on Track After the “Pandemic Skip”

Updated October 16, 2023

Window view of a person working from home typing on their laptop from their home office.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, it was almost like the entire world hit the "pause" button—but, as we all know, time didn't truly stop.

Losing three years (or more) affected all of us in different ways, but many young professionals are reeling from the effects of what's been called the "pandemic skip." Today, you'll hear from folks who were impacted by the pandemic skip and get some advice on how to recover. 

What is the "pandemic skip?" 

Imagine taking a three-year nap and waking up to realize that you've aged, but you didn't get to experience any of the markers that typically come with that process. This is what's meant by the pandemic skip, defined by Katy Schneider as "the strange sensation that our bodies might be a step out of sync with our minds." 

Professionally speaking, for college students on the brink of graduation or young graduates just entering the workforce, the pandemic skip can feel brutal. COVID-19 robbed these people of the "typical" first job experiences: job searching, meeting coworkers in person, learning how to network and establishing a daily routine based on your job. 

We still don't know the full effects of COVID-19, though some studies have given us an initial idea. In 2021, a report showed that the number of non-employed college graduates went up by almost 20%.

That same year, another source reported that many 2020 graduates either had job offers rescinded or delayed—and because the graduate school admissions cycle had already closed, those people were not able to enroll in a graduate degree as an alternate plan. 

Even two years after COVID-19, a study found that almost 100% of college students were experiencing moderate or severe mood disorders. The students' learning quality had been severely affected by the pandemic, and they felt scared, stressed and unhappy. 

"I went from a straight-A student to someone who missed deadlines" 

Damian Dunn, a strength coach and business owner, was in his last year of undergrad in 2020. He was poised to receive his degree in fitness and human performance and begin personal training and coaching. 

When the world shut down, Dunn's opportunities to work with different coaching camps for more hands-on experience vanished. "The pandemic greatly affected my professional trajectory," he explains. "Gyms weren't open for a few months, and all of my schooling went from in the lab to online. I went from a straight-A student to someone who was missing deadlines—and even tests." 

While Dunn was still able to graduate on time, he struggled with online learning. He missed going to the labs and doing hands-on work with the lab equipment and his peers—and he wasn't able to learn certain software programs and testing protocols. "Because I don't have that under my belt, I've had to solely rely on coaching to make a living, rather than branching out into the medical or clinical field," Dunn explains. 

Dunn has also felt the loss of the networking experience he would have gained had the program remained in person. 

"At the end of undergrad, I would have had the opportunity to work closely with my school's research institute and its professors to help them gather data. Because I missed out on the individual time with my professors, I never built a rapport with them," Dunn recalls. 

"I have a few peers who graduated before me, and they've gotten different jobs via those connections. That narrowed the scope of what I was able to do immediately after finishing my degree."  

Though Dunn was able to eventually build a successful business, he blew through his savings right after graduation, trying to keep his business afloat when gyms weren't even open. He admits that while he's proud of what he's created, he feels burned out by the long-term struggle and is considering switching careers as a result.

"The pandemic had other plans for me" 

AJ Eckstein, founder of The Final Round, was also set to graduate in 2020. His school shut down for spring break that year, and he never returned to campus. He experienced a virtual college graduation ceremony, canceled all of his post-grad travel plans, as well as his move to San Francisco for work, and moved home with his parents to recoup. 

"I truly thought I had my whole life and career mapped out, but the pandemic had other plans for me," he says. Because of COVID-19, he received a six-month job start delay for the full-time management consulting job he'd been offered and later began that position online. 

As Eckstein watched the job market collapse, he wanted to help. He decided to offer career coaching services and quickly found himself with a full-time client load. "However, as much as I loved it, I realized the real problem was inadequate career resources on the market," he states.

After hearing that a common pain point was that candidates couldn't advance past the "final round" interview, Eckstein's next move was clear. He started a podcast and, when that gained traction, expanded into a larger career platform. 

For Eckstein, his new path is the silver lining of the pandemic. "Everything that I've done professionally is because of COVID-19," he points out. "It's one of the few positive things coming out of a dark chapter. Looking back, if I didn't have that extra free time at the start of the pandemic, I would never have invested in my own company."

Advice for how to cope with the pandemic skip 

Jen Brown, a leadership coach and HR consultant, works with a demographic that has a lot in common with people affected by the pandemic skip: folks who are returning to work after parental leave

Brown notes that for many, coming back from an extended period of time away from work brings up "a messy mix of feeling they've missed out on opportunities they deserve and that they aren't equipped for opportunities that present themselves. 

This is not unlike the anxieties of those impacted by the pandemic skip. It's normal to feel you've missed out, while also feeling a lack of confidence in your skills and abilities. Depending on the industry, there may be very real impacts such as lower pay or less progression." 

So, what can you do if you're struggling? Here are some of Brown's tips:

  • Be curious and inquisitive. This will help you build critical professional skills and relationships. If you're wondering how a colleague got to their current role and what they like about it, ask them. If you're confused about the "why" behind a business decision made at work, talk to your manager.

  • Make an effort to participate in extracurricular or social activities that your company offers. The value is in the connections you make with colleagues—whether they're in your department or not. The more people who see you, the more visible you are, and visibility leads to opportunity. 

  • Share your goals with others. You might think it's obvious, but talking about it with others keeps you top of mind if an opportunity does come up down the road.

  • If you're feeling confused or stuck, reach out for guidance. Talk with a manager or mentor, or engage a coach to help you figure out how to get support and keep progressing.

  • Foster connection and community among other people impacted by the pandemic skip. You'll feel less alone, and you may be able to help each other grow through knowledge- and experience-sharing. 

  • Don't let your mental health fall by the wayside. Explore your company's wellness program, if they have one, and be proactive in planning days for yourself to relax and detach from work.

Brown also reminds her clients, "If you weren't able to get into your chosen field during the pandemic, the door is still open. Careers don't follow one track anymore." No matter what job you're currently doing, you're likely gaining transferable skills and experience that can help you as you plan a pivot.


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