College graduates are poised to enter one of the most difficult job markets in U.S. history.
Nearly 4 million people are expected to graduate with a college degree this academic year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
They will do so amid soaring unemployment and shuttering businesses.
Jeffrey Peterson, who hopes to land a job working on policy on Capitol Hill, was finishing a master’s degree in public policy at the London School of Economics in the United Kingdom before returning early to the U.S. amid the pandemic. He’s now finishing up his course work online, and wondering about his prospects.
“My entire goal of going to college in D.C. and pursuing public policy in post-grad was to help people and to help in these types of situations and the irony [is] that now this situation is having a negative impact on my career goals that really center around wanting to help other people,” said Peterson, who obtained his undergraduate degree from George Washington University.
Just a few months ago, college graduates would have been entering a stellar job market and feeling good about their prospects.
Employment figures had steadily increased in the decade after the 2008 financial crisis. In February, before the pandemic gripped the country, employers added 273,000 new jobs, and the unemployment rate was at a record low, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Lockdowns triggered by the pandemic changed that overnight, leading 36.5 million people to apply for unemployment benefits, according to Labor Department data released Thursday.
Job search experts agreed that the “unknown” factors of this economic downturn, including how long the shutdowns will last, make the situation unique.
“The current crisis is certainly unprecedented due to its unique impact on the economy, combining the scale of a recession at the pace of a natural disaster,” Amanda Stansell, a senior economic research analyst at Glassdoor, said in an email.
Experts in job hunting emphasized that the difficult job market will be temporary and encouraged applicants to remain patient and optimistic. There are employers in certain fields that are still hiring right now, especially in the health care, education, government, technology, warehouse and delivery industries, they said.
Other fields, like hospitality, transportation, arts, entertainment, tourism, retail and food and beverage, may not have job openings in the immediate future.
Shawn VanDerziel, the executive director for the National Association of Colleges and Employers, encouraged college graduates to work on applying their skills and interests to industries that have jobs available right now.
“Think broadly about your own skills and your own interests so that if there is not a job in the industry that you had always dreamt to be in immediately, that you are able to pivot and to think about how your skills and interests may apply to another industry,” he said.
Christine Cruzvergara, the vice president of higher education and student success at Handshake, said recent graduates will have to be “grittier” and “take greater initiative” when applying for employment. She urged graduates to use available job searching resources and platforms and build their online presence and network.
“So focus on the things that you can control,” she said. “You can't control the economy. You can't control the pandemic, but you can control what you do during this time.”
A recent survey conducted by Monster.com and Wakefield Research showed that 55 percent of future graduates said they applied to a job they knew they weren’t the right fit for, and 52 percent said they would accept a lower salary.
“They’re feeling desperate,” said Vicki Salemi, a career expert at job-hunting website Monster. “But I think they should know that real experience matters, and companies are looking to hire in different areas so ... we’re optimistic.”
Salemi pointed out that this financial crisis differs from the Great Recession more than a decade ago because back then, college graduates turned to “side hustles” to make money, like in the restaurant industry. But those positions are “on the bench right now” with the closures, she said.
Since the start of the pandemic, most university career centers have worked to make resources they already offered virtual, such as resume workshops and internship-matching services.
For some, at least, employment and internship plans for the summer are still on, but have moved online, said Norma Guerra Gaier, the director of the University of Texas at Austin’s career center.
“[COVID-19] has changed the way that employers engage with students and how students search for part-time jobs, internships and full-time opportunities,” she said. “While some employers have had to make adjustments to their internship and full-time hiring plans, the majority of companies are reporting that they are holding steady and transitioning their new hire and internship programs to virtual experiences.”
Abra McAndrew, the University of Arizona's assistant vice president, said in a statement to students that their ability to find a job under these circumstances is not an accurate reflection of their quality as a candidate and encouraged them to consider jobs that they may be overqualified for.
“There are a lot of core skills to be learned in any job that will transfer to a career path job in ways you might not even be able to imagine right now,” McAndrew said. “If you must say yes to something that is just for now, keep your eyes on opportunities that align with what you love.”