While many college students will rejoice as campuses begin to reopen and vaccinations become commonplace, those set to graduate are left with a prevailing uncertainty: How am I going to get a job after the pandemic?
A year ago, college grads faced a historically bleak job market that was especially difficult for young workers. In May 2020, the unemployment rate for young adults (ages 20-24) rose to 23%, more than double that of the year before. With a lifeless job market and sinking economy, many 2020 graduates were dealt a discouraging hand.
Now, even as COVID-19 slowly subsides, the next wave of graduates have gained little confidence about a pandemic job hunt. For them, anxiety overshadows news of a waning pandemic.
“Honestly I’m kinda scared,” said USC graduate student Hannah Grogin when asked about entering the job market this May. Grogin is nearly finished with her master’s program in applied psychology. “I know that students from my same program last year had trouble getting hired, there were just a lot less people hiring. There’s just a lot more fear about not being able to get a job because of the pandemic.”
Typically, May and June — the end of the academic calendar year — open a stretch of tremendous growth for the youth labor force, as entry-level positions are filled and internships abound. Young adults who finish school during these months must find full-time work for perhaps the first time in their lives.
Though this year’s grads will enter a job market that has about a 10% unemployment rate for young adults — a number cut in half since last year — not all will get a job they find meaningful.
Data from Burning Glass Technologies revealed that, since the start of the pandemic, hiring for entry-level positions that require a college degree fell by nearly 50%. In a similar finding, Glassdoor reported the “number of available positions with ‘entry-level’ or ‘new grad’ in the job title had decreased by 68% from last year.” More and more grads end up applying for higher-tier jobs they may not be qualified for, pandemic or not. Then, some grads become inclined to take jobs that do not require a college degree.
This opens the door to increases in underemployment — that is, working a job that you are overqualified for. Before the pandemic, underemployment for recent grads sat at about 40% — during a time when headlines praised historic achievement in unemployment rates and growth in the labor force.
Yet, because there are people who are neither working nor pursuing work due to health concerns, current underemployment estimates, along with the unemployment rate, may actually be much higher.
In any case, uncertainty ravages students’ job prospects, leaving many to both expand their search and lower their standards for a first job. Grogin acknowledged that she is considering applying for more jobs that are not exactly what she wanted.
After sending out a bevvy of job applications and getting radio silence, Thomas Kim enrolled in a master’s in public diplomacy at USC. “I applied a lot but it didn’t pan out in the areas I’m interested in,” said Kim, who had trouble landing a job last year when he graduated in the early months of the pandemic.
“I figured it would be great to get my master’s and better prep for a post-pandemic job market,” said Kim. “Given the pandemic and the uncertainty that comes with it, I’ve widened my job search considerably.”
While it is unclear how quickly the ship that is the economy will be righted again, evidence suggests that young adults who enter the job market during a recession can face long-term repercussions — higher rates of unemployment lasting years down the line, lower average earnings, and increased likelihood of enrolling in government support programs. Younger workers often face the heaviest unemployment rates during economic downturns, as the ones with the least experience suffer most during hiring halts.
Some pandemic grads may be wondering whether or not they have fallen into this unlucky cohort. This next group, too, might be resigned to the same thought if the pandemic drags much longer.
Despite the challenges, for students such as Kim, who has written and mailed over 90 cover letters since the start of his master’s program, the process has been rewarding.
“In a way, I do feel that widening my job search was a blessing in disguise because I realized my skill set and experiences fit into more areas than I had first anticipated,” said Kim. “I feel like my master’s gave me new skills and new ways I can apply my undergraduate degree in a meaningful manner.”
For the students who lament over the disconnect between their new degree and their lack of job prospects, at least now they can tell their parents they are not alone.