They have a degree, but what about a job? Recent grads get creative.

Why We Wrote This

Job hunts always require resourcefulness and perseverance, but this year’s college graduates need an abundance of both. How is the latest group to enter the workforce adapting to an uncertain environment?

Gene J. Puskar/AP
Class of 2020 University of Pittsburgh graduates Shannon Trombley (left) of Philadelphia and Julie Jones of West Chester, Pennsylvania, take turns posing for photos with a statue of Pitt's mascot, the Pitt Panther, April 27, 2020.

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When the pandemic hit, Samuel Greenberg, then a senior at Dartmouth College, did not move back to New York City. Instead, he took a job as an emergency medical technician in a nearby town. He plans to continue working for the same EMT service during the coming year. 

“We get plenty of interesting calls here so I didn’t see any reason to start over somewhere else and we’re perpetually understaffed,” explains Mr. Greenberg, who graduated this year. 

The class of 2020 is joining the workforce at a time of Great Depression-level unemployment rates. Although a once-positive job outlook has turned decidedly adverse, new grads are striving for – and many are finding – internships or job options, or other next steps amid the pandemic.

Experts and graduates themselves say they need to stay proactive despite the hardships. Some are delaying entry into the workforce, opting for grad school instead. For others, like Mr. Greenberg, the situation is helping bring clarity to what to pursue.

“The crisis has not changed my attitude towards going to medical school and becoming an emergency room doctor,” he says. “If anything, it has made me more certain that it will be a challenging and rewarding career path.”

As college graduates look for jobs this summer, they may find themselves turning to Wade Fletcher.

Mr. Fletcher, a rising sophomore at Indiana University, started CovIntern, a platform through which companies post remote internship opportunities. The website is now used by more than 100,000 users in over 100 countries, and its creator makes sure that each posting is legitimate and pays fairly.

“There are a lot of opportunities masquerading as internships,” Mr. Fletcher explains. “I’m not going to post any opportunity on here that’s not something I would do myself.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

As the interest in this website attests, even internships have become a hot commodity, as the class of 2020 in particular joins the workforce at a time of Great Depression-level unemployment rates. Although a once-positive job outlook has turned decidedly adverse, new grads are striving for – and many are finding – internships or job options, or other next steps amid the pandemic. A key for graduates, experts say, is to remain proactive despite the hardships.

“I would encourage grads to continue to network, take online coursework if possible, and continue to build and augment their resumes so when the market does turn around, they are right there and ready to get that dream opportunity,” says AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab.

Some members of the class of 2020 have been doing just that, even while joining the fight against the coronavirus. When the pandemic hit, Samuel Greenberg – who graduated this year from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, with a degree in biological sciences – did not move back to New York City. Instead, he took a job as an emergency medical technician (EMT) in Claremont, a nearby town.

During the peak of the pandemic, Mr. Greenberg transported many patients with the coronavirus, often with limited access to protective equipment. As intense as he says that was, he plans to continue working for the same EMT service during the coming year.

“We get plenty of interesting calls here so I didn’t see any reason to start over somewhere else and we’re perpetually understaffed,” he explains.

By most accounts, the class of 2020 was graduating into one of the best and most inclusive economic times in American history. In the United States, the unemployment rate had fallen to a 50-year low, at 3.5%. And minority groups were making some of the biggest economic strides.

That was before COVID-19 shocked the world. Now, graduates face a new reality. “It’s a really tough time to enter the labor market and get that first 9-to-5 opportunity,” says Ms. Konkel from Indeed. 

In March, McKenna Bates, then a senior at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, moved back in with family in southern Virginia to finish college remotely when the coronavirus hit. In the process, she lost her part-time teaching job near her college campus. And though Ms. Bates, who has a degree in government and international politics, has been applying to jobs since moving back home, the search has so far been unsuccessful.  

“I’ve been looking since January and was turned down from one job around February. As for the rest of the jobs I’ve applied to, I’ve either not heard back at all or was told that everything, including hiring, is frozen until normal life resumes,” Ms. Bates said via text message. 

Ms. Bates is now turning to her professional network to gauge which companies are hiring. And if she is not able to find a job, she says she would take a temporary job until the labor market stabilizes. 

For some graduates, the current economy has meant delaying entry into the job market and pursuing grad school. Katie Coscia, a 2020 graduate of Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Georgia, who majored in cell biology, had to make what she says was one of the most important decisions of her career – where to pursue a Ph.D. in biology – without a chance to visit campuses and talk to professors and students in person.

“Having to try to figure out what the next 5 to 7 years of my life are going to be like based on incredibly incomplete data has been one of the most stressful things I’ve ever experienced,” she says.

In the end, she accepted a place in the Ph.D. program at the University of Delaware. And though much is still unknown for many students like her, she is relieved to know what she will be doing come fall.

“I know that ‘normal’ is going to have a different meaning for a while, but seeing myself registered for some of my first classes as a graduate student reminds me that there is something great waiting for me down the road, even if there’s times where it doesn’t feel like it,” she says.  

Despite the disruptions in post-graduation plans for many, some have not been as severely affected by the pandemic. Josh Richman, who just earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, says that although he might have to rethink his plan to return to Cornell this fall to pursue his master’s in engineering, his summer internship at SpaceX is moving forward as planned. He recently began working at the company’s Los Angeles office, which he says has implemented safety measures such as foot handles on bathroom doors and coronavirus testing for employees.

Emotionally, however, Mr. Richman is still experiencing the shock waves many in the class of 2020 are undergoing.

“I have multiple friends whose internships have been cancelled, and people have been posting all over the internet with their stories. It seems to be completely random which companies are cancelling internships, and it varies case by case. Because of this, I feel almost a sort of ‘survivor’s guilt.’ I didn’t do anything better or worse than others, I just got really lucky that my company decided to keep the internship program this summer.”

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, college graduates entering the workforce during recessions are disproportionately affected. They start at smaller companies that pay less, and suffer earnings losses that do not recover for about a decade. Recessions also magnify the disparities within a graduating class, with those who are set to earn less in wages experiencing stronger and longer-term losses in earnings.

Even so, for some, like Mr. Greenberg the EMT, the situation is helping bring clarity to what to pursue.

“The crisis has not changed my attitude towards going to medical school and becoming an emergency room doctor,” he says. “If anything, it has made me more certain that it will be a challenging and rewarding career path.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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