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sophie austin

The Covid Gap Year

Choosing what to read at university is a rather daunting process. One tries to strike the balance of choosing something you will enjoy while offering great career prospects. This was something I felt I had smashed when excitedly confirming my place to read events management and marketing at the University of Brighton back in 2016. Not only would the knowledge and skills gained be extremely transferable, but career opportunities would be abundant because people are always attending events, right? Fast forward to 2020, I found myself ‘graduating’ with a degree and placement experience in an industry that not unlike myself, was fighting to survive the pandemic. Yikes.

During my studies, I completed a placement year at Strata (formerly known as a year in industry or sandwich year). Although optional, this was something I was determined to do as experience is invaluable in this industry and in life more generally. Moreover, industry experience would allow me to apply the knowledge learned in lectures into real-life context.

My placement year experience at Strata was invaluable and gave me a unique insight into life at an events agency. I gained experience in many areas such as project management, logistics, delegate management, event technology and was fortunate to go onsite gaining live event experience both domestically and internationally. I enjoyed and benefitted from the close mentorship and buddy-up system, varied work, and the growth opportunities given I was up to the challenge. The experience additionally gave me confidence and confirmed to me that I had chosen the right course back in 2016 and that I did want to pursue a career in events.

Upon completion of my degree, I was keen to re-join Strata, following in the footsteps of several team members who completed placement years at Strata and have now progressed through the company. Unfortunately, I graduated at a time when recruitment in the industry ground to a halt, with many talented professionals placed on furlough or made redundant.

Despite the turbulent climate, I tried to remain optimistic and threw myself headfirst into the job-hunting process. I felt confident following my placement year that I would stand out entering the job market with a years’ experience under my belt. My reality in 2020 was competing with professionals with at least several years’ worth of experience for entry-level roles. Graduate jobs are extremely competitive under normal circumstances. Add the tens of thousands of highly skilled people made redundant into the mix, even getting feedback from an unsuccessful application was near impossible. Not only is the process extremely gruelling, but it's also immensely time-consuming. No matter how resilient or thick-skinned a person may be, facing so much rejection as a graduate after concluding your final year in isolation, inevitably affects mental health and wellbeing. At the time of writing this article, only one other of my course mates is working in events full time. The others feedback the same frustrations that despite their degree and placement year, securing work in events as a graduate is a near-impossible task.

My initial optimism eroded, I sought out a role in a slightly different industry that would still allow me to develop transferable skills whilst the events industry had time to recover. At the beginning of 2021, I started working on the Covid Vaccine Project in the HR department as a Booking Coordinator. This project was remarkably like an event with the patient journey through the centre very similar to a conference. My role on the project entailed conducting screening interviews, booking staff on to training, collecting the relevant certificates and sharing logistical information about the site. These tasks felt similar to the delegate management tasks I did on placement and drew on the same skillset. Although not in events, I enjoyed this role and am glad to have played my part in the vaccination program.

As I had hoped the events industry did start to recover, and with the growth of virtual events agencies including Strata were once more advertising vacancies. So when the opportunity arose to return permanently to Strata as a Project Coordinator the decision was a total no brainer. Made even easier following the great experience I had during my placement year. Additionally, I worked for Strata onsite at a few events as a freelancer both in my final year and towards the end of 2020 so I remained somewhat in touch with the company.

Now in June 2021, I am enjoying my new role as a Project Coordinator at Strata which I started in March. Despite starting in lockdown, working remotely and the many changes the agency has seen since I left, it is familiar and feels as though I never really left. It has been wonderful to catch up with old colleagues, albeit virtually, and I very much look forward to seeing the whole team in person when restrictions allow.

Although my graduate journey has been challenging, I am thrilled to be in this fortunate position and cannot wait to progress through and enjoy my career in events.

Not only have I felt the benefits of a try-before-you-buy recruitment approach, but Strata also champion their grassroots recruitment strategy which as mentioned above, has seen many past placement students successfully return and progress through the agency.

Written by Sophie Austin, Project Co-ordinator at Strata