Younger workers struggle to stay competitive in this Covid-19-impacted job market
By Erin H. Brown
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the professional lives of all generations in today’s workforce. But perhaps none will feel such a lasting effect as young people now graduating into this environment from college or high school.
An increasing number of studies indicate the drag on Generation Z and younger millennials may well dog these younger adults for years. In May, just two months into the pandemic, an article in The New York Times suggested that those who enter the job market during a downturn “may never catch up in pay, opportunities, or confidence.”
Lack of seniority and serving in part-time jobs, rather than working full-time, are just two of the many reasons these workers are more vulnerable than their older colleagues to layoffs and slower career progression.
“I do feel like this group of college students will be at a disadvantage when entering the marketplace,” says Kathy Cunha, Success Advisor at Bottom Line, a non-profit organization that provides college and career support to first-generation students with low-income backgrounds. Regarding the young people she advises, Cunha says, “Just reaching this point is hard enough in normal times. Now, with these added pressures, it’s important they stay focused and motivated and talk with us for support.”
Bottom Line was founded more than 20 years ago to provide guidance from the start of the college application process through completion of college. The staff also helps graduating seniors find jobs. Cunha says additional challenges her cohort faces right now might include carving out quiet time to study at home, inconsistent internet connectivity, and keeping much needed part-time jobs. “Some students hold on-campus jobs that may not come back due to the increase in online learning,” she says. “Staying competitive also becomes more difficult for low-income students who can’t afford to take advantage of opportunities like unpaid internships.”
To understand the experience of students who are caught in the cross hairs of the COVID-19 pandemic, I reached out to several to listen to their stories.
Molly Colburn, a rising junior at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, says the impact of COVID-19 on her schooling was immediate. “I was studying engineering abroad (in Madrid, Spain) this past spring and courses moved online even before I was sent home by Georgia Tech,” she recalls. “It was very hectic and stressful having to leave Spain with such short notice, and then enter a 14-day quarantine back in the US, all while trying to keep up with the lectures and assignments professors were posting online.”
Molly adds that course content, not just logistics, became an important factor during these changes. “Learning thermodynamics and fluid mechanics through PowerPoint slides simply was not providing me with the high level of understanding I need to succeed in future mechanical engineering courses and in my professional career,” she said. “Thankfully, my classes last semester were pass/fail. Had they not been, the spring semester would have been catastrophic for my academic standing.”
Patrick Carr was in his sophomore year at the University of South Carolina when the pandemic hit in March 2020. He spoke about the impact of courses being moved online: “The switch to online coursework forced me to learn a lot of the material on my own, without a professor there to teach me,” Patrick says. “Young people are being disadvantaged by this crisis because the education we’re receiving is hindered due to the lack of ability to meet with professors and attend in-person classes. Also, it limits job opportunities, with companies not hiring as many people right now,” he says.
Christina Hanford was living in Boston as a sophomore at Emerson College last semester. The pandemic not only forced her from her dorm room but also from her job. “We had to move out of our dorms, leave campus, and finish the rest of spring semester online using Canvas (a learning-management platform) for assignments and Zoom for synchronous and asynchronous classes. It was a rough transition for both students and professors,” she says. “Job wise, I worked at Juice Press (JP) in an Equinox gym, which was quickly shut down due to COVID. Soon after I returned home from school, I was laid off because it was clear it would be a while before JP reopened.”
As difficult as it has been for those in their mid-college years, still more young students are dealing with entering a new school — or a new job – amid the crisis. Students like Henry Nguyen, who is preparing to enter the University of Massachusetts Amherst this fall as a freshman.
Henry admits this new world has only added to his anxieties. “The spring 2020 shutdown made me feel much more anxious due to the switch to online learning and online AP tests. Not having our teachers and peers there to support us made me feel more isolated and alone. I definitely think this has taken a toll on my mental health despite having more free time to complete assignments,” he says. “Taking care of new household duties, assisting my mom with technology for her own work and duties, and retaining contact with my grandparents during a pandemic has thrown a lot of work and anxiety onto my plate.”
Henry also mentions that the cancellation of summer jobs and internships was a setback to several of his peers who now will not be able to gain valuable experience before entering their university years.
On the other side of her university career, Maggie Cunha (Kathy’s daughter) was ready to graduate this past spring from Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, when her world changed. “It [the pandemic] had a very large impact. At first, I was devastated that I would miss at least part of my senior spring. I absolutely loved my college and friends, and I had so many things to look forward to this spring.
“It was really hard on me, and I was heartbroken. I kind of felt like I was being robbed of something I thought was a given. I continually tried to put my problems into perspective when compared to issues others were facing, like sick family members or people losing their jobs. But regardless, it was still really disappointing and rocked my world. I just wanted to be with my friends finishing this important chapter of my life.”
Once she made it back home, things didn’t look much better from Maggie’s perspective. “I felt really adrift when I got home. I joked that the only concrete plan I had for the rest of my life was a dentist appointment scheduled on May 11th . It really hit me on a symbolic level when that appointment got canceled a few weeks into being home. Being a senior was especially difficult because I knew I would never be able to return to my ‘normal’ as a college student.”
Maggie did graduate in the spring and now is trying to navigate a tough job market to get into her desired field of work, politics. “I thought my industry would be pretty immune to economic issues,” she says, “but it turns out that no one is leaving their current jobs, so they’re hiring a lot less.”
Madeline Curley, who graduated from Boston University in 2018, has a foothold in the job market already. She works at a large insurance company where staff have been working remotely since March. For Madeline, the pandemic has been eye-opening. “I am fortunate to still have a job, but the inherent security I once felt has absolutely been reduced by COVID-19,” she states. “I have friends and colleagues that have been laid off and it’s intimidating to realize how quickly someone’s financial stability can be shifted.
“I have also been a witness to the limitations this experience has put on individuals’ career development. Whether it is an exam that has been canceled or travel plans for work, these stepping stones are being taken away. Plans to change careers or return to school are being jeopardized by the uncertainty around the future work environment. I personally feel I need to work much harder to maintain existing connections and build new ones. I’ve put some pressure on myself to put in more effort and produce results more quickly to prove my value and avoid being the subject of expense reductions.”
So what are young adults struggling to find stability supposed to do right now? Similar to the approach suggested for out-of-work adults in normal times – something many in the PDC community have experienced – experts recommend younger people take a proactive approach to networking, and try to stay positive.
“Remember that everyone is in the same boat, so don’t focus on the idea you are the only one falling behind,” says Bottom Line’s Cunha. Some ideas include taking free classes, which can help workers of any age stay competitive when entering or reentering the job market. Cunha also suggests getting certifications that relate to your field if possible, as well as researching volunteering opportunities in your community or your field of interest. “For example,” Cunha says, “if you are a psychology major, find out if there are hotlines that provide help to others while giving you relevant experience. Many of these opportunities can be done from home and may be easy to schedule.”
Younger students and workers agree that focusing on the positive is important. “I took an internship (with a past employer) because it was good experience that would look good on a resumé, would keep me busy, and would bring more positivity to my days because I was helping out a startup,” says Christina. Also, she hopes to start her own company someday. “It is good for me to see [how] a new company that’s just starting out handles challenges like COVID.”
Maggie commends the community at large for recognizing and supporting people her age. “There’s been a lot of support for the Class of 2020 (both high school and college), which has been really nice….” Also, this pandemic has made a lot of the existing inequalities in our communities and schools even more visible. I hope students, teachers, and administrators are paying attention to this and thinking about how we can address making college (pandemic or not) a more even playing field.”
Madeline says she’s noticed several positive changes at work. “I feel like our productivity and communication among teammates has been as good, if not better, than before COVID-19.” As well, she says, a result of the pandemic has been a focus on what’s important. “I have noticed there is a greater emphasis on work-life balance. Our manager regularly gauges people’s enthusiasm, mental and physical health, and efforts to take time off. He encourages us to take time off, to go for walks and not feel ‘chained to our desks.’
“In a world where there is so much pressure to work harder than the person next to you and to work long hours, it’s nice to see senior executives voicing their opinions about self-care. I have also felt that working from home has given people time back in their day when they otherwise would have been commuting. Now, rather than sitting on a train or in traffic, people have time to go for a bike ride, eat dinner with the family, or pick up a new hobby. Ultimately, I think this aspect is a positive result of COVID-19 and one that is hopefully here to stay.”