When college seniors started school last fall, opportunity seemed to be racing toward them due to a strong economy and record-low unemployment.
Yet in only a few months, the coronavirus pandemic has slammed a lead foot on the brakes.
Roughly one in 10 workers is out of work nationally after 16.6 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the last three weeks.
Under the best projections, this year’s graduates will face an economy struggling to rebound, a competitive job market, and at least for the foreseeable future if social distancing or stay-at-home orders continue into the summer, a lack of jobs that often bridge the gap from campus to career.
Prior recessions have shown that a downturn is a hard time to leave college — and graduates can see a loss in earnings throughout their careers, said Jonathan Dingel, an associate professor of economics at the University of Chicago’s Booth School.
“Just getting your first step on that job ladder is more difficult when we’re in tough economic times, so unfortunately people that are just entering the labor force right now [are] going to find it to be quite difficult,” according to Dingel.
Nearly a dozen students who spoke with the Sun-Times said they have lost internship opportunities they hoped would lead to a full-time position, are considering delaying post-graduate education and are struggling to find work.
But the most daunting concern, they say, is the uncertainty — no one knows what to expect next.
“The situation right now is really in flux for many [companies], so the employers are delaying internships, canceling some,” Edwin Koc, director of research and policy for the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a nonprofit that partners with college career centers and larger companies that seek out college graduates. “It’s tough if you’re a college student coming out in this environment.”
In a recent survey of their network, the association found that 12% of employers were revoking internship offers to 2020 graduates and 2% were revoking offers for full-time positions. Twenty-two percent were still considering how to move forward.
Moriam Yarrow, 22, a neuroscience major, will graduate from University of Illinois at Chicago this month. In March, her internship as a research assistant at Stroger Hospital was put on hold when the first COVID-19 patient was admitted. A summer internship position at Rush University Medical Center is similarly up in the air, with officials not sure if it will be offered virtually yet.
“I do feel like I’m losing a lot,” Yarrow said. “Especially for my future career — meeting people and networking, getting to watch people in senior positions in healthcare working.”
And her plans to enter graduate school in the fall at the University of Minnesota depends on whether the school will still be doing remote learning. If so, she said she’d likely delay a year.
Nia Spencer, 21, is graduating in June into one of the hardest-hit industries by the coronavirus. The aspiring chef returned home to South Shore after attending the Culinary Institute of New York at Monroe College closed last month. Spencer said she’s heartbroken.
“People have put years into their restaurants, their souls, and one event and it’s gone,” Spencer said.
Even when the businesses reopen — if they do — Spencer said they’ll be re-hiring furloughed workers first and that she expects it could take a year for them to recover from the financial hit.
“My plan was to find a paid mentorship program [at a restaurant],” she said. “It’s going to be really hard to find work and I know it’s going to take a long time.”
Collin Funcannon, 22, will graduate in May from Loyola University and is “just trying to stay optimistic” after he interviewed in March at one of the city’s premiere public relations companies for an internship position he felt he would get. A week later, he learned that the program had been canceled.
It was an experience he hoped could lead to a job at the company, or at least experience to put on his resume. Now, he’s concerned that the job he’s held in college, serving coffee, is “not even on the table.”
Younger college students impacted, too
It’s not just upcoming graduates who are having setbacks.
Diontae Norwood, a junior studying finance at Western Illinois University, said his internship at Wintrust Bank has been delayed at least a month — for now — because the company wants students to come into the office.
With an expected $30,000 in student loans after graduation, a potential long-lasting recession and tough job market in the financial sector could mean fewer opportunities to apply for.
“If I have to take a low-budget job to start, that’s what I’ll do, ‘cause that’s not where I’m going to finish,” Norwood said.
UIC sophomore Alondra Santos said that despite applying for 20 internship positions and getting four interviews, competition between students and uncertainty around working remotely means she is still searching.
“All my friends are looking for internships and they’re not getting anything,” she said. “I’m just continuing to apply and hoping things change.”
The 19-year-old engineering major’s most recent interview on March 27 was with North Shore Gas, but she has since been told the utility doesn’t know the fate of its summer internship program.
Santos has worked as a waitress in summers past to make money for school, but now doesn’t even have that option.
Research by Dingel at UChicago has found only about 1 in 3 jobs can be preformed at home, making the key question for economists now how quickly the economy comes back after the public health crisis is solved.
“The short-term disruption could do long-term damage,” Dingel said.
Koc said a silver lining for students could be the robustness of the economy before the crisis.
“It may be a quick downturn and something of a decent response,” he said. “That’s the hopeful, optimistic side.”