College grads struggle to launch careers in a pandemic economy. 'I chose the worst year to get my life together'

CHICAGO - Kevin Zheng had big plans as he prepared to graduate from the University of Illinois in Chicago with his criminal justice degree this spring.
The 23-year-old thought he would enter the job market well prepared, with an internship with the Chicago Police Department on his resume.
But the COVID-19 health crisis turned that plan on its head. His internship was canceled, his graduation was postponed until August, and he sat in his bedroom for the virtual opening ceremony. Now he's looking for a job in a pandemic-triggered recession.
"I chose the worst year to bring my life together," said Zheng, a first-generation college graduate who lives in Chicago's McKinley Park neighborhood.
As the coronavirus pandemic persists, Zheng and other college graduates have recently been grappling with a tight labor market, high unemployment rates, and pressures to find work to repay student loans.
At the beginning of the year, Generation Z, usually defined as those born after 1997, entered the workforce during the longest economic expansion in US history. But now the Illinois unemployment rate for 20-24 year olds is 15.5%, one of the highest of any age group in the state, according to the Department of Labor.
With more employers shedding jobs and upgrading skills for vacancies, recent college graduates fear they will fall behind in their careers. Some save money on student loan payments by cutting their expenses while others apply for part-time, low-wage jobs. Many still live with their parents.
Zheng, who lives with his parents and owes about $ 30,000 in student loans, said he was considering starting part-time work but saw how difficult it can be. Both parents work in catering and often do handicrafts together in different restaurants in order to achieve a stable income. Zheng said he was afraid of taking a job that could expose him to the coronavirus and then potentially infect his parents.
“My parents are older. I'm afraid if I get the virus I won't be the one to get hurt. They will be the ones who will be seriously harmed by the virus. That really stopped me from going out too much, ”he said.
Another UIC graduate, Serge Golota, 22, who graduated with a degree in biochemistry in May, is moving from his Chicago apartment to his parents' home in Glenview because he has not found a job.
According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 52% of young adults ages 18-29 reported living with one or both parents in July. This is an increase from a decade ago when 44% of young adults lived at home.
Golota, who has about $ 17,000 in student loans, said he applied for laboratory positions and expanded his search to drug sales, but potential employers are not calling back or asking for years of experience. If he can't find work in the coming months, he can apply to retailers like Target or clothing stores to make money.
"I felt really discouraged by the hiring process," said Golota.
Experts say 2020 graduates could face similar challenges as millennials born between 1981 and 1996 who graduated at the height of the 2008 financial crisis.
Research on previous graduates suggests that Gen Z workers may face lower incomes, persistently low employment rates and fierce competition for jobs once the economy recovers.
Millennials who graduated during the 2008 recession saw their earnings remain low for the next three to four years compared to previous graduates and those who graduated after the recession, said Jesse Rothstein, economist at from the University of California at Berkeley.
“If you find a good job early on, it will lead to more growth in the years to come. If you start your career at a time when there aren't that many good jobs, it seems to be linked not only to worse results right away, but also to worse results even after the economy has recovered, ”said Rothstein.
Rothstein said that for any group that graduated during and after the 2008 recession, employment rates were about 2% lower compared to older workers, although the labor market grew steadily in the 2010s.
It remains to be seen how dramatically the pandemic-induced downturn will hit graduates in 2020. However, experts say the effects could linger if the economy does not recover quickly.
Eliza Forsythe, assistant professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said companies tend to hire current year graduates for entry-level positions rather than those who graduated a year or two earlier. Employers see sharper post-college skills in current graduates compared to previous graduates, especially those who have no relevant post-graduate experience, she said. Such decisions could further hamper the ability of graduates during a recession to find work in their field.
Without government relief, the labor market could get even tighter in the coming months as President Donald Trump and Congress argue over a new law to relieve coronaviruses.
Airlines, hotels and other businesses are cutting more jobs and urging employees to make acquisitions and cutbacks after federal aid to many companies ran out last month.
For some field graduates, it is better to find work outside their field than no work at all.
Jesus Mendoza, 23, graduated from Chicago State University with a degree in business administration that spring. He took a full-time job as a production worker at auto parts maker Flex-N-Gate on the southeast side of the city, which pays $ 15 an hour.
Mendoza, who lives in Chicago's East Side neighborhood with his parents, said he had spent less money and dined with friends to save money.
"I saved money to pay bills," he said.
Since graduating, Mendoza said he had spent countless hours applying for jobs in his field but had no luck. He owes about $ 30,000 in student loans that he'll have to pay for next year.
According to a report from the Institute for College Access & Success, an Oakland, California-based nonprofit that works to improve college affordability, the national average student loan debt for 2019 public and private college graduates was $ 28,950.
A federal moratorium on paying education debts expired on September 30th. In August, Trump signed an executive order to suspend payments on federal student loans through December 31 with no penalty or accrued interest.
The regulation excludes students whose loans are held by private companies and universities.
Many recent graduates turn to their college career counseling centers for help. But even after improving their resumes and improving their interviewing skills, it is still difficult to get a job offer.
Part of the problem is employers adding more positions to job postings because they don't have the time or resources to train entry-level professionals, said Julia Pollak, an employment economist at ZipRecruiter.
"The amount of energy that is available to focus on training young, green workers is not currently available," said Pollak.
The pandemic-induced downturn has also resulted in some companies shedding jobs that are critical to entry-level jobs, Pollak said.
According to ZipRecruiter, job postings for entry-level positions that require a college degree have decreased by 57% nationwide since mid-February.
The pre-pandemic high-demand entries for entry-level software developers have seen one of the biggest declines in recent months as tech companies downsized their research and development departments, she said.
"When companies are in a big shock and need to get as efficient as possible, today it's really all about surviving and generating revenue, not creating widgets for future demand," she said.
Marketing, advertising and design jobs have also been badly affected by the pandemic, she said.
Even those who have returned to school to earn a Masters degree are struggling to find higher-paying jobs.
Adriana Valdez, 29, finished her MBA program at DePaul University in August in the hopes that her new skills and degree would open more doors.
"I've been looking since spring and it's really difficult what's out there," said Valdez. "Sometimes it's very common that you don't hear anything at all."
Valdez, who graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a degree in marketing in 2014, said she heard from companies that they didn't have enough experience.
"How am I supposed to gain experience if I don't have a chance to take advantage of an opportunity?" Said Valdez.
Valdez, from the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, works as a full-time risk manager for an insurance company, and her employer paid half of her tuition fees. But her company put in place a hiring freeze that made it difficult to find and move up a better paying job, she said.
With her MBA, Valdez said she was looking for management and legal counseling roles that would cost about $ 10,000-20,000 more than her current role, which will require her to pay off her student loans and move out.
As the first person in their family to earn a bachelor's and master's degree, they are expected to find a better-paying job, she said.
"It's also the pressure just to want your victims to mean something," she said.
Currently, Zheng is attending virtual career fairs through UIC and applying for jobs in areas such as social work and child welfare services while considering his future in police work.
"I have hope that I can find a job this year, but it's wishful thinking," he said.
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