Tabitha Palmer graduated in May of 2020 with a master's degree in English from the University of Alabama. After completing her studies, she moved back home to Warrior, Alabama, smack in the middle of the pandemic. A year later, she's still living with her parents and looking for her first full-time job in publishing.
"I'm 25 — I should be out of the house by now, but the circumstances messed that up," Palmer told CBS MoneyWatch. She also said she had expected her job hunt to take about six to nine months, but "COVID doubled it and made it a one- to two-year process."
Palmer is among those in the class of 2020 who are struggling to get their careers off the ground, or even land a decent job, following the pandemic's epic hit to U.S. job market. The fallout may also cloud the employment picture for the class of 2021, which is entering the labor force at a time the nation's jobless rate remains elevated.
Competition for entry-level positions is stiff, with recent grads competing with young professionals who were laid off during the health crisis and who are now seeking to reenter the job market.
"There is definite crowding in the market," said Brad Hershbein, an economist at the Upjohn Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan. "The people who last year didn't get the job they wanted displaced less-educated workers in jobs that didn't require a bachelor's degree. Now they are still looking to get into a better job, but are competing for the same positions the class of 2021 is going for."
In a recent survey, about 45% of 2020 grads said they are still looking for work, according to employment site Monster. A recent Pew Research Center analysis of federal labor data also found that about 31% of 2020 graduates were unemployed last fall, well above the 22% for 2019 graduates.
Recent college grads often have higher unemployment rates than more seasoned workers. In February of last year — the month before the pandemic slammed the economy — the jobless rate for all grads stood at 2.1%. But the jobless rate for recent graduates, or those between 22 to 27 years old, stood at 3.9%, according to data from the Federal Reserve of New York.
As of December 2020 (the most recent data available), the jobless rate for recent grads was 7.2% — far higher than the 4.7% rate for all college grads.
"There are jobs out there"
Despite such obstacles, the job market has improved for recent college graduates, said Christine Cruzvergara, chief education strategy officer at job-site Handshake. Listings on the site, which caters to new grads, were 81% higher in March compared with the year-ago period, and tripled in April compared with a year earlier.
"Many of us hadn't anticipated that we would rebound so quickly," Cruzvergara said. "That is extremely positive — there are jobs out there. You have to make sure you are prepared, and you have to do your research."
The prospect of entering the job market this year was a source of anxiety for Marie Robert, a 2021 graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, who majored in psychology. Her college works with Handshake to link students with prospective employers, which was how she found an entry-level job at GE Healthcare.
"We were competing with the class of 2020 because they were pushed back from starting their jobs," said Robert, 21. "And we were also competing with people who were laid off from their jobs and were applying for entry-level positions, or wanted any level job they could get. I felt the pressure on the applications."
Although she scored a job, the pandemic is also having an impact on her new role. She won't start her training program at GE until the end of 2021, after the pandemic-delayed start for 2020 hires at the company. Since she'll have a gap between her graduation this month and starting her new job, Robert plans to return to her home state of New Hampshire to work this summer and fall at a local restaurant and brewery.
Other recent college graduates are cobbling jobs together to make ends meet, such as Ashley Tippit, 24, of Birmingham, Alabama, who recently graduated with a master's in English with the goal of working in publishing or as a college professor. She's lined up a series of jobs, such as teaching as an adjunct professor and working this summer for Americorp, but she is worried about the low pay.
"I think that people are hiring, but there are so many people who want the same job," Tippit said. She's considered moving to New York or other regions where there are more jobs in publishing, but the cost of living in those locations may make such a move prohibitive. Her plan is to work for a year, then apply to graduate school.
"Into the void"
Finding a job takes persistence — and a thick skin, said Jamie Rieger, a 2021 graduate of Barnard College in New York who is set to start her job with health care software company Veeva in July. A neuroscience and behavior major, Rieger said she began looking for a job over winter break. She applied to 25 jobs, but received almost no responses.
"We would joke that we would appreciate a rejection," Rieger said. "It feels like you are sending things out into the void."
Even so, students such as Rieger who pursued health care or STEM-related degrees in college are more likely to find work than those who majored in fields still impacted by the pandemic, such as restaurant management or hospitality, Hershbein of the Upjohn Institute said. To be sure, the disparity between STEM-focused and liberal arts graduates pre-dated the health crisis, but the crisis may have widened the employment gap.
Other students may turn to graduate school, both as a way to further their aspirations but also to delay entering the job market. Previous recessions have seen increases in college enrollment for those same reasons.
Makayla Smith, 23 years old, recently started a master's degree program in English at the New School in New York, after graduating with her bachelor's in 2020 from the University of Alabama. She said she has applied to about 90 jobs since last March.
"I either heard nothing or I got a rejection," Smith recalled, noting that she's now employed through her graduate program, where she tutors and works as a resident assistance. "I would be unemployed if I wasn't in graduate school, which does concern me because not everyone is able to access graduate school."
Networking still works
College experts have some advice for recent college grads, whether they earned their degrees in 2020 or 2021.
Networking still works. Even in an environment where interviews are done via Zoom and applications are submitted online, networking can help open up opportunities.
"Last year what we were telling students and alumni was, 'Don't tear up the playbook for best practices of finding a job'," said A-J Aronstein, dean of Beyond Barnard at Barnard College, which helps students and alumni find internships, jobs and other opportunities. "Leverage your network, understand what opportunities are out there. Build a community of support around yourself."
Start by tapping your college's alumni, advised Cruzvergara of Handshake. Online platforms have made it easier in some ways to reach out to people, especially those whom you otherwise might not have had a chance to meet in person, she added.
Turn gaps in your resume into opportunities. Some students may be concerned that they have gaps in their resumes, a common issue given the pandemic. But experts say this can be turned into an opportunity.
"Employers across the board had a tough year, too — they know you had it hard and what you were up against," Cruzvergara said. "What's important is that students can articulate what they did with that time."
For instance, if you couldn't find work, it could be a chance to highlight any volunteering efforts or any skills you picked up during the pandemic, Aronstein said. "It is really beneficial to think about ways to develop skills on your resume — such as through LinkedIn Learning or Khan Academy — developing concrete skills that you might not have focused on in college," he said.
Practice the Zoom interview. Most job recruitment has shifted to remote interviews, which means students need to be prepared for Zoom interviews, experts say. Before an interview, take video of yourself on your iPhone answering typical interview questions such as "What are your strengths?" Aronstein recommended.
"You have to understand that what makes a candidate effective is making sure you look at the camera on Zoom, that your workplace is clean, that your broadband is fast," he said. "Practice with a friend, and pay attention to the ways the virtual space can be an advantage if you understand how it works."
Keep Post-it notes to the right and left of your computer screen with reminders of points you want to make, Aronstein said. And, he added, "Keep your pets locked up."
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