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Graduating into this mess stinks

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Students graduating

Graduation will be different this year. Joshua Lott/Getty Images

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Graduation is not gonna be the same this year.

Some graduations are online, some are canceled, some are even postponed a year. But it’s after graduation that comes the big question: how to get a job. Finding a job right now is pretty much on hold for most people. But for grads just starting out, this isn’t just any job, it’s their entry into the workforce.

This year started off so well for so many rising seniors.

“I was supposed to be a sales associate at a restaurant software company,” said Liam Modesti, a senior at Wake Forest in North Carolina with a business development major. “My plan was to spend the entire summer working at a restaurant and saving up to relocate to Los Angeles,” said Meg Schimelpfenig, a film major at Kenyon College in Ohio.

The pandemic has basically eviscerated their plans. HR called Modesti and told him the company “suspending all hires until further notice.”

Schimelpfenig, who wanted to pursue a career in film, says she’s “very worried about moving out to L.A. before there’s a vaccine. If there are no restaurants to work in, and no studios hiring, then there’s no reason to go.”

The numbers show a mixed picture so far. According to a survey done in April by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, only 4% of companies had revoked job offers, but 19% were considering it. Twenty-two percent of employers were revoking internship offers — internships that often lead to jobs.

“Until the economy shows real signs of life, it’s gonna be hard for a student entering the job market right at this point to get a job right away,” said Edwin Koc, director of research, public policy and legislative affairs at NACE.

That’s borne out by an April poll by Challenger, Gray & Christmas showing 37% of companies have instituted a hiring freeze. “There’s a whole second wave of companies facing a global recession that are considering how they’re going to reduce their labor force,” said Andy Challenger, senior vice president at the outplacement firm.

And 2020 grads are facing extra competition from millions of Americans who have been laid off in recent weeks. “Now they are competing for those entry-level jobs among 30, 35 million Americans with working experience,” he said.

Students who graduated into previous recessions carried the consequences with them for years. Till von Wachter is professor of economics at the University of California, Los Angeles, who’s studied how things go for recession grads from both high school and college. He said that “workers entering the labor market during the recession fare initially worse than their more lucky peers that graduated during economic expansion.”

Recession grads make less money, and it takes 10 to 15 years to catch up in terms of income.

Disturbingly, workers who graduated during the early ’80s recession caught up with their nonrecession-graduate peers, but ended up making less again in their 40s and 50s. Von Wachter hypothesizes it could be a result of health declines, perhaps the consequences of a less healthy lifestyle adopted early on because of stress or financial hardship.

Von Wachter cautions, though, that the extent to which the current economic downturn will be like others is not at all clear. Things may go very differently. We don’t know.

“I don’t want students kind of giving into this gloom and doom and thinking, ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do now.’ That’s the absolute worst thing they can do,” said Mark Smith , associate vice chancellor and dean of career services at Washington University in St. Louis.

He’s been going full tilt advising his grads, telling them there are jobs out there, and many of those lost may reappear, though they may be different from what students were expecting.

Grads should still be applying. “That might be 25% of their time, but then I want them spending 75% of their time networking with people who are doing the kinds of things that interest them,” Smith said. “This is a good time to do it. People feel terrible for the class of 2020. I think people are always willing to help recent grads and students, but particularly in this time period folks will be very willing to talk to students about what they’re trying to do and how they might go about getting there.”

Smith recommended free online classes to fill time — developing spreadsheet skills, for example. Or working on a personal project, a blog about something that interests you.

Koc, the research director at NACE, said graduates should try to be flexible and resourceful, if at all possible. “If you can’t get a job in a professional setting and you’re struggling to find a job, take what you can get. If you can afford to do it, volunteer.”

“If you’re not doing anything, you’re definitely not gonna get something,” Smith said.

He worries most, though, about students who don’t have the luxury of waiting around — who need to work, now.

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