As 3.8 million college students enter the workforce this year, entry-level professionals are launching their careers during one of the most challenging job markets in recent history. As of early June, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics says the unemployment rate is now at 13.3%.
Tens of millions of (skilled, experienced) Americans are out of work right now so it’s ridiculously hard for new grads with little relevant work history under their belts to compete for open jobs. The last time college students walked off the graduation stage into such a tough job market was during the Great Recession of 2008, when unemployment peaked at 10%.
As COVID-19 spread, college classes went virtual, and graduation ceremonies were canceled, I reached out to a Class of 2020 graduate as well as a graduate of the Class of 2009. I wanted to ask some questions and get first-hand perspectives on what it’s like to navigate a meager job market as a new grad—then and now.
A Tale of Two Downturns
Taylor, who graduated from college in 2009, is now in her early 30s. Back in ‘09, she had just completed her degree in public relations from a top public university when the recession hit. “I’ll never forget holding up a sign at graduation that said ‘Got Job?’” she said. “I was already unsure of what I wanted to do when I graduated, and the lack of jobs didn’t help matters. My university’s career services were available to me and I had access to my school’s alumni database, but that was it.”
Social media platforms were still in their infancy at the time and wouldn’t be used for career networking and job searching for another few years. “Social media marketing classes weren’t available,” said Taylor. “Everyone was learning together so I followed people who seemed to be setting trends and I taught myself what to do—and what not to do—through trial and error. We didn’t have the online job search resources that are available for graduates today.”
To get a sense of what resources are available for Class of 2020 grads, I spoke with a young woman named Lyric. (Taylor introduced us; the two women know each other because they both graduated from the same university and program.) Lyric explained that, when the pandemic started, she and her classmates greatly benefitted from the support and guidance of their university professors and career services staff, even though that support was provided completely virtually. She says her advisors gave her specific, useful information about how to navigate the nuances of job searching during an economic crisis.
“When everything started to go down in March,” said Lyric, “my advisors sent email blasts to myself and my classmates to gauge how we were feeling and then scheduled virtual meetings to see what we wanted to do about our next steps.” One professor told Lyric to anticipate that her internship might be cancelled, which did happen. Another of her professors taught the art of networking in one of his classes, and Lyric immediately began applying what she’d learned in class to her online networking efforts. Every professor told students to stay busy, develop new skills through online learning, network via social media, and continue to build their resumes during quarantine. “All of these things really made a difference,” Lyric said.
Based on these two anecdotal experiences, it seems that the university both women attended has come a long way in terms of how well its career center and its professors prepared graduates to look for work during an economic downturn.
The Problem of Underemployment
One of the most concerning trends facing 2020 college graduates is the problem of underemployment (working a job for which you’re overqualified or working part-time when you’d prefer full-time work). One recent study found that about 40% of recent grads are likely to face underemployment. From my own experience, having been writing resumes since the downturn of 2008, people who were underemployed in 2008-2009 often remained underemployed—even years later. And it’s not just my experience that points to this trend; one study found that 43% of workers who were underemployed in their first job were five times as likely to be underemployed five years later as those who were not underemployed in their first job.
What’s a recent grad to do? Take the first job offered, given the strong employer’s market in which we currently find ourselves, and just be grateful to have a job? Or, in light of the pitfall of underemployment, hold out for a position that aligns well with their educational preparation, industry preferences, and professional ambitions?
The answer, I think, is both. Personally, based on my years of talking with job seekers, I think it’s smart for recent graduates to take the jobs they can get while continuing to look for longer-term, best-fit roles.
Here are my takeaways for recent grads:
Stay focused. It may be a good idea to take a less desirable job for now (paying your bills is important!), but my advice would be to avoid getting comfortable in that industry/role. I’ve seen many 30-somethings who come to me for resume-writing help after 10 or even 15 years in an industry they fell into by default. If you do need to take a job that’s not in line with your chosen career, don’t get complacent, comfortable, or stuck in a rut, satisfied with the status quo. Stay focused on your long-term goals; where the mind goes, reality follows. (I believe in this principle so much that I’ll elaborate on it in my next post, so stay tuned for that.)
Work for free. If you can swing it, consider working for free to gain experience—whether in an unpaid internship or a volunteer capacity. You may not have planned to move back home after graduation and/or you may have hoped to land a paid internship, but you may need to reexamine your next steps. Right now, any experience in your target field will be a resume-builder, will help you make industry connections, and will teach you the transferable skills you’ll take with you to your next job.
Switch industries. Consider looking for jobs at the right level and function, but in industries that are maintaining—or even expanding—right now. Perhaps you never imagined that your bachelor’s in communication would lead you to apply for roles within the utilities sector but maybe, right now, that’s where you can find a job in your field. Sectors predicted to do well in this economy include consumer durables, information technology, utilities, and telecommunications.
Upskill constantly. If weeks turn into months, months turn into years, and you’re still not working in your target role/industry, you run the risk of being left behind with respect to technology, tools, trends, and practices in your field. If you’re forced to take an unrelated job just to keep making rent, commit to continuing education, self-paced learning, personal projects, or volunteer work that will keep your professional skills sharp. These volunteer roles, personal projects, or online courses are also things you can include on your resume.
Budget wisely. Too many times, people end up trapped in jobs they don’t like because they have few financial options available to them. The average college student graduates with $30,000 in debt. If you’re in debt, commit to paying it off as quickly as possible, do your best to avoid acquiring new debt, and resist the temptation to live outside your means. In fact, live below your means and save for a rainy day. Financial security gives you options. And options are always good.
If you are a recent college graduate, you know that this is an incredibly hard time to be starting a career—but good things come to those who hustle, who network, and who prepare. if you need help preparing your resume and polishing your LinkedIn profile, my team and I are here to help. In fact, right now we are running a special: all resumes for new graduates are 20% off. For family members who’d like to gift a new graduate with the perfect graduation gift—our Graduate Package—get in touch with us by emailing email@example.com.