Four million college students are expected to graduate this month. They will enter a job market that has been turned upside down by coronavirus.
“Everything’s kind of up in the air right now, so I don’t really have a solid plan on finding a job, just because I don’t know where I’ll be living in a month or two.”
Emma Taylor planned to spend her fall working in a fellowship position in a 15th Century castle in Tuscany. After graduating from Mount Holyoke College this month with a major in romance languages and a minor in art history, she was hoping to spend her time in Italy figuring out what she wants to do in the long-term. Her gig would have allowed her to dabble in a bit of everything—programming, social media, tourism, and project management—while working at a foundation that houses international artists.
But a few days ago, Taylor was told that, due to the coronavirus, her appointment would be postponed for at least a year. Now, she isn’t sure what she will do in the interim.
Taylor may be one of a few new graduates who can claim that coronavirus stole a castle from her. Otherwise, her story isn’t unique.
As COVID-19 continues to take a significant toll on the economy and push unemployment numbers higher, many college seniors are finding themselves suddenly without jobs or internships at the exact moment when they are attempting to kickstart their careers. As these positions are postponed, cancelled, or moved online, recent graduates are left in limbo.
“It’s definitely a stressful time for students,” explained Cheryl Brooks, associate provost of career development and professional connections at UMass Amherst. I asked Brooks to walk me through the woes that she has witnessed. She continued, “There’s so much uncertainty out there with employers and for students. No one has all the answers. People are waiting each week and trying to make good decisions.”
According to an April survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, while only 4% of companies had revoked job offers, 19% were considering it, while 22% of employers had revoked internship offers, which many recent graduates rely on as a gateway to paid permanent positions. A May 18 update found that 24.5% of employers had instituted hiring freezes.
UMass Amherst conducted its own surveys of employers that recruit at the college in May, according to Brooks, and found that 23% of them were delaying start dates and 15% had put hiring on hold. For students who may have spent months networking, researching, and applying for jobs, it can be unclear what positions remain open.
“One thing students really are interested in is just knowing what companies are still hiring, what positions are available, because there’s uncertainty,” Brooks said.
Nevertheless, nearly 4 million college students are graduating this month, and many will enter the workforce. In some sectors, coronavirus has had little impact. Colin Cavanaugh graduated from Salem State University this month with a degree in computer science; if anything, he believes the pandemic has helped his prospects.
Cavanaugh is currently interviewing for jobs in computer science, and is hopeful about getting one. He already has a job at a butcher shop, and is planning to work there until he finds something in his field. For him, it’s easier to focus if he works from home, and working remotely would be ideal.
“I’m sure that there have been some things that changed but … I’d say definitely the computer science major, it is easier to shift things online,” Cavanaugh said. “That’s something I like about just the idea of a computer science major, is that you can work remotely.”
For those looking for jobs in less online-friendly sectors, the possibilities are limited. Brenna Sharkey, a 2020 Boston College graduate, is set to attend Tufts University in the fall to work towards her M.S. in biology. She isn’t worried about finding a full-time position at the moment, but even Sharkey’s plans to work as a paid research assistant in a BC psychology lab part-time this summer have been hobbled. Her hours have been cut, the position is no longer paid, and all of her work is remote.
For Sharkey, moving her position online eliminated the best parts of it—interacting in person with the dogs the lab is studying, and collaborating with other researchers. Besides one or two Zoom calls a week, Sharkey works on her own on individual projects.
“It’s not at all as fun,” she said. “Having the dogs come in was literally the best part of my job… and it’s like, working towards research, important research. So not being able to do that has been pretty disappointing. We wouldn’t have to do these individual projects if it wasn’t for the coronavirus. In a normal situation, we would be all collaborating on the same project.”
Sharkey considered looking for new opportunities for the summer, but decided against it because she is currently living with her parents in New Jersey. She was kicked off campus with most other students when BC shut down, and isn’t sure when she will be able to return to Boston.
“Everything’s kind of up in the air right now, so I don’t really have a solid plan on finding a job, just because I don’t know where I’ll be living in a month or two,” Sharkey explained.
Taylor was also living on campus this semester, and moved back in with her parents when her college closed. She is now living in Beverly, applying to jobs in both the US and Italy. Taylor is interested in arts-related communications, but because the arts sector has been particularly hard-hit by the coronavirus, has expanded her job search.
“I’m just casting a wide net that has nothing to do with… communications and the arts, but just communications for any sort of company really, or also looking at language opportunities like teaching or any program that has a remote connection to art and language that I could then use as a transferable skill or experience,” Taylor said.
The graduates interviewed for this story didn’t see any upside to graduating this year. But Brooks is hopeful that some good can come out of the current uncertainty in the job market. She emphasized that there’s a lot of sympathy for college graduates at the moment, and that most employers she has heard from are trying to be flexible and understanding.
“Employers …. have been … supportive of the current seniors and alumni reaching out and everybody,” Brooks said. “No one is expecting students to pull a rabbit out of the hat. In some ways, this has given us an opportunity to rethink how we do things and be more innovative and creative.”
Employers and career service departments are working quickly to implement virtual career events, establish online resources, and reach out to students. But Brooks did note that innovation and adaptability won’t necessarily solve everyone’s problems.
“On the other hand,” Brooks added, “financial concerns are a reality, and definitely there are students who need to start working soon. They have loans or they have, you know, they need to start bringing in income.”
The coronavirus crisis has led many new graduates to embrace flexibility, voluntarily or not. Now they just hope that flexibility is enough to land them a job—any job.
“The ideal situation would be to get a job that I feel like would help me in the long run and not just get a job to make money,” Taylor said. “We’ll see.”