For the Class of 2020, a job-eating virus recalls the Great Recession

“I had a loose idea of what I was doing in a few months. And now I’m just looking into the void.”

Isabelle Serrano, a senior at New York University, at Union High School in Union, N.J., March 26, 2020. As the economy barrels toward a recession, college seniors like Serrano fear they could become the next class of 2009, which entered the work force at the peak of the Great Recession as companies conducted mass layoffs and froze hiring.

They hoped to secure jobs on political campaigns, at fashion brands and law offices, and in sales and finance. Instead, they’ve had internships canceled and interviews postponed, wandered through empty job fairs and seen recruiters ignore their anxious emails.

When the coronavirus pandemic forced college students across the country to leave campus in early March, the abrupt departure was especially painful for seniors. It meant rushed goodbyes, canceled graduation ceremonies — an overwhelming sense of loss.

Now many of those seniors are home with their families, contemplating an even worse prospect: a job market more grim than any in recent history. Last week, according to the Labor Department, nearly 3.3 million people filed for unemployment benefits, more than quadruple the previous record.

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As the economy barrels toward a recession, college seniors fear they could become the next class of 2009, which entered the workforce at the peak of the Great Recession as companies conducted mass layoffs and froze hiring.

“That is definitely on everyone’s minds,” said Tarek Ziad, a senior at Yale studying ecology and evolutionary biology. “We have to hike up our boots.”

A number of major companies, including Yelp and Disney, have suspended their internship programs, a common route to a first job for many graduating seniors. At some job fairs in early March, major companies simply didn’t show up; now all those career events have been canceled.

The number of new job listings posted between mid-February and mid-March dropped 29% compared with the same period last year, according to data from the job marketplace ZipRecruiter. Postings for retail stores fell 14%, events jobs went down 20%, and casino and hotel jobs dropped 23%.

The hiring situation will probably get worse over the next few months as closures and cancellations ripple across the economy. “These are still early effects. The first wave of industries hit will not be the last,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist at ZipRecruiter. “There will be a large human cost.”

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‘Looking Into the Void’

Andres Salerno, a senior at Butler University in Indianapolis, stayed in his off-campus house after classes went online, one of only a few remaining undergrads in what feels like a ghost town. Practically everyone he knows is anxious about the job market. Some of his roommates are Peace Corps recruits who don’t know whether they’ll be able to leave the country. His girlfriend is a dancer whose professional auditions have been canceled.

For his part, Salerno had hoped to get a job on a political campaign in his home state of Texas — an option that no longer seems viable as canvassing has ground to a halt.

“Everyone has a different job or career, and all of it’s upended,” he said. “I had a loose idea of what I was doing in a few months. And now I’m just looking into the void.”

For three years in a row, Isabel Serrano applied for an internship at the same New York lobbying firm, starting when she was a sophomore at New York University. She finally got it last year and started working in January as she finished her last semester at NYU. She hoped it would turn into a job after graduation in May.

But a couple of weeks ago, as she took a walk in her parents’ neighborhood in Union County, New Jersey, Serrano got an upsetting phone call: The internship was canceled because of the coronavirus.

“It’s just a sad thing to hear,” she said. “I had two more months left to really advocate for myself, and that is gone now.”

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A Decade or More of ‘Scarring’

Historically, college students who graduate into a recession have settled for lower-paying jobs at less prestigious companies than people who finished college even a year earlier. Economists have found that the impact of that bad luck can linger for as long as 10 or 15 years, leading to higher unemployment rates and lower salaries — a phenomenon known as “scarring.”

Whether the class of 2020 will face long-term consequences depends on a range of factors, including the length of the pandemic and the severity of the recession that seems certain to follow. But it doesn’t look good.

“I’m worried for them,” said Lisa Kahn, an economist who has studied how recessions affect college graduates. “If they’re graduating into a large recession, they’re going to suffer some pretty severe short-term consequences. And that’s probably going to stay with them for almost the next decade.”

At her home near Houston, Caroline Carlson, an agricultural economics major at Texas A&M University, has grown increasingly concerned about her chances of landing a job working on sustainability issues at a food company. Her mother has tried to spin news footage of people panic-shopping at grocery stores as a positive — a reminder that there will always be a market for food. Carlson remains pessimistic.

“I don’t think companies are really going to be looking to bring on more corporate positions or go through the steps of training someone,” she said.

“I get emails from Glassdoor daily — like, ‘You’d be a great fit for Walmart cashier,’” she continued. “Thank you so much; that’s really what I want my bachelor’s degree to go toward.”A severe downturn could also jeopardize the career prospects of students who graduate later this year or in 2021.

Martin Lang Jr., who is set to finish business school at the University of Detroit Mercy in December, got an email last week saying his internship at Urban Outfitters’ corporate office in Philadelphia was canceled. An aspiring stylist, Lang had hoped to stay at the company long term. “It would have given me fashion experience and credibility in an industry I want to be in,” he said. “Now I’ll go a year without working in a corporate environment.”

Career counselors at some major universities are trying to stay upbeat. Kerin Borland, director of the University of Michigan Career Center, said recruiters have continued to interview students over video chat. The school also turned an in-person job fair into a digital one through a partnership with CareerEco, a virtual recruiting platform. And Borland said she has encouraged undergraduates to keep in touch with recruiters so they are in the pipeline for future jobs.

“The hope is, we will get through this unusual circumstance and move forward,” Borland said. “Employers don’t want to have to start from scratch in terms of building relationships with students.”

Some industries, like nursing, have even seen an increase in job listings, according to ZipRecruiter. The number of e-commerce listings rose 228% over the past four weeks compared to last year. Personal consulting jobs went up 26%.

Maya Punjwani, a college senior from Miami, said she originally wanted to go into business communications. But given the pandemic, she has decided to pursue jobs in public health — her minor at the University of Florida. “Now more than ever I can use that part of my college degree to hop on something that’s so prevalent right now,” she said.

All the Standard Moves Are Useless

Over the last few weeks, many job-hunting seniors have engaged in an awkward dance with recruiters in industries like law, journalism and technology, asking for updates while trying not to seem insensitive or selfish. All the traditional rules of engagement in a job hunt suddenly feel irrelevant. A meetup for coffee is out of the question. A request for a networking call might seem invasive.

Kaylie Ramirez, a senior at Boston College, said she spoke with several recruiters in recent days to discuss job opportunities in financial and strategic communications. One said he empathized with Ramirez, noting that he graduated in 2009 and also faced a bleak job market. He promised to be as helpful as he could. But others advised her to hold off on sending her resume given the uncertainty.

“It was a reality check,” Ramirez said. “I’ve gradually been lowering my expectations, and I think that confirmed what I knew deep down anyway.”

For some seniors, uncertainty about the economy has created outrage. Most of them were in fifth grade in 2008. But they remember the damage wrought by the Great Recession.

“It’s hard to be motivated or excited about the systems we have in place because we’ve seen the mess they’ve created over and over again,” said Serrano, the senior at NYU.

But memories of 2008 — and the economy’s eventual recovery — have also been a source of comfort.

“This is the first pandemic that I have lived through, that my parents have lived through, but this isn’t the first time the economy has not been great,” said Amy Germano, a senior at James Madison University. “If we can get through the recession in 2008, I think we can get through this.”

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