COVID-19 cost me my dream internship. Here's how an hourly job helped me get to my next career step anyway.

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© Provided by Business Insider Alex Barton is now an associate media planner at The Wall Street Journal. Matthew Barton

  • In April 2020, Alex Barton’s dream internship at The Wall Street Journal was canceled.
  • He worked as a chef, a waiter, and a builder as he applied for jobs in a “bleak” market, he said.
  • He said the “bizarre boot camp” helped him appreciate his skills. Now he’s at The Journal full-time.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In April 2020, Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal canceled their summer internship program because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The program has offered me a London-based internship in media sales at the Wall Street Journal two months earlier. Its cancellation made me feel like my career was over before it started.

With no backup plan, I focused on what was left of university.

On May 27, I submitted my final assignment remotely from my family home in the Lake District, in the north-west of England. I was officially unemployed.

The job market was bleak. No one was hiring because no one knew what was going on.

I briefly considered a “panic master’s.” But the structure it would offer me couldn’t outweigh the fact that I didn’t particularly want an extra year of education.

So in early July, I started working at a bistro while living at home.

I worked as a waiter, a barman, a pot washer, a cleaner, and, eventually, the cook. Occasionally I’d even man the ice-cream stand. This was sticky and soul-destroying work.

After working there for five months, I had paid back the overdraft I’d accrued as a student and was out of debt.

But the search for my dream job hadn’t stopped. I’d scour LinkedIn late at night and message recruiters early in the morning, checking whether they knew about any upcoming roles.

On November 5, England’s second national lockdown started. Restaurants closed, and once again I was unemployed.

Luckily, one of the owners of the bistro offered me a job working on a building site, which could still operate under lockdown restrictions. I started on November 23.

I was pulling down ceilings, knocking down walls, and operating heavy machinery.

The job was physically demanding yet surprisingly fun. I worked at the site throughout a dark December. There were days we were told not to come in because of heavy snow, icy roads, or torrential rain.

I’d been applying for jobs – a few a week – during my time on the building site. These varied from parliamentary internships to public-relations and communication roles.

In my various screening calls and interviews, I’d always mention my current work, even though it had no direct relevance. I wanted to show I’d been industrious.

But they weren’t interested. The questions focused on the internships and the placement year I’d done during my studies.

But without my work in the bistro and in construction, 2020 would have been much tougher. They provided routine and structure to a year that could have easily melted away.

But what happened next made me realize just how valuable they had been.

On January 15, Edelman, a PR company that had recently interviewed and rejected me for an internship, got in touch about another opportunity.

Four days later, as I was on my lunch break – covered in soot, wet through, and exhausted – I got a call. Edelman was offering me a job as a client team assistant.

I bought a bottle of Champagne and told my parents. We were all in disbelief. When the company laptop arrived, it started sinking in.

Having been employed pretty much nonstop since I graduated, I felt ready to dive straight into my new job. I wasn’t worried – I was determined.

The early starts weren’t a problem. I was used to them because of the jobs I’d done, the ones interviewers hadn’t asked about.

Neither were the long hours. I was used to those too.

The job went well. On April 6, Edelman promoted me to assistant account executive.

When Dow Jones and The Journal canceled the internship program, the recruiter told me to stay in touch. So I did. I’d email every few months to let her know what I was up to and see if any jobs were on the horizon.

On May 10, the recruiter contacted me with a job offer as an associate media planner at The Journal. I was enjoying my time with Edelman, but I had to take the job.

I’d always known I wanted to do something in the media. These months working in different jobs had made me realize I wanted a career as a journalist, so I took the job that would mean working alongside them.

Working with deadlines in the kitchen, meeting new people and listening to their stories on a building site, and understanding what makes something newsworthy in PR all helped me think about what I wanted to do as I went from having a Journal internship canceled to working there full time.

This bizarre boot camp helped distill my ambitions. As well as working as an associate media planner, I’m training part time to be a journalist. I’m hoping to move to editorial work when my contract ends.

My path to journalism could be more circuitous than that. But then again, things don’t usually happen the way you plan them.

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