One night in March, UW-Madison senior Alexis Terry overheard students discussing the possibility of UW-Madison closing campus for the rest of the semester due to the spread of the novel coronavirus as she worked in the library.
Terry was stunned. She never imagined school would close, not to mention the two part-time jobs that supported her were on campus.
Soon that possibility became a reality and Terry was forced to go back to her hometown of Milwaukee the following weekend, unable to continue working, but with the rent still due on her Madison apartment.
“I still had rent. I had bills,” Terry said. “I’m a person who’s self-sufficient.”
Terry is not an outlier. The class of 2020 is already experiencing historic economic hardship, entering a crisis-rattled job market. Pandemic-driven fiscal stressors may beget long-term adversity for recent college graduates, especially students of color.
At home, Terry started applying for post-graduation jobs while she juggled a 16-credit course load to fulfill requirements for her Life Sciences Communication major and digital studies certificate, along with an independent research project — a difficult task even without the added obstacle of a pandemic. She estimates she applied for 300 jobs from November 2019 to July 2020.
“I got all of the business cards that were at the bottom of my backpack and started typing people’s names [into LinkedIn],” Terry said. “I didn’t know it would be a COVID-19 job market.”
Terry’s friends thought her full-force networking tactics were a bit extreme, but as a Black first-generation college student, she was determined, especially since she lost her main sources of income when the campus closed. She began to sell her clothes through Poshmark, just to stay afloat financially.
“My whole purpose of going to college was so I can get a good-paying job and so I can support myself and my family,” Terry said. “When I passed the 150 [applications] mark, I was like ‘What was the point of college?’ I really was questioning my whole four years.” The job search process was mentally and emotionally draining for Terry. She noticed fellow recent graduates who lacked robust resumes landing high-paying positions and began to wonder if the new COVID-19 economy was not the only factor preventing her from receiving job offers. She became concerned algorithms were filtering her out based on her race and the languages she speaks.
“I was thinking, ‘Am I being racially profiled?’” Terry said. She made a new “European-focused” Indeed profile that did not include her ethnicity and only listed English and Dutch in the language fluency section, though she is fluent in Spanish as well. The majority of connections she made through Indeed, Terry explained, were sparked by her Dutch-speaking abilities.
Terry eventually received requests for in-person interviews once the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned Gov. Tony Evers’ safer-at-home order and Milwaukee businesses began to reopen. However, she turned them down in fear of contracting COVID-19 from an office and infecting her elderly grandmother, who she visits frequently. Terry said she felt disrespected when hiring committees did not offer her a virtual interview option.
“I can’t risk coming to an interview and not being guaranteed a job. That’s not worth the risk for me,” Terry said. “If you can’t respect me as a person, then maybe this just isn’t the job for me.”
Finally, in late July, Terry secured a full-time science writing position at a biotechnology company. The position, which she landed through a LinkedIn connection, is remote. Terry said she feels fortunate that she was able to negotiate her starting salary to “somewhere in the middle” of the amount she was initially offered and the amount she asked for.
“I feel like with the pandemic, things would’ve been different for sure,” Terry said.
Terry’s experiences with possible racial profiling and eliminated income sources are not isolated, however.
“There’s this anxiety over COVID, and on top of that, there’s also the anxiety over racial discrimination,” said Mfonobong Ufot, a recent Black UW-Madison graduate. “A lot of Black and Brown students have had to deal with not only the global pandemic, but also deal with racism.”
Ufot was a house fellow working in the dorms before she was laid off amid domestic coronavirus outbreaks.
“It was just emails after emails, contradicting information after contradicting information,” Ufot said. “No one really knew what was going on.”
According to Ufot, UW-Madison Housing staff lost their full-time positions when many students living in the dorms did not return to campus after spring break. House Fellows were expected to sign up for limited individual shifts.
“Income got slashed,” Ufot said. “I needed to remove myself from that situation.”
Ufot left the dorms, but had a paid internship that remained consistent with hours and compensation; she described the stipend as “a life-saver.”
Ufot originally planned to join the Peace Corps in January 2021, but began applying to jobs after noticing volunteers in ongoing Peace Corps programs had been sent home. Initially, Ufot admits, she was applying for positions that did coincide with her long-term career goals; hiring freezes had limited her options.
“It felt I was making a choice to put my career on hold and just get whatever as a placeholder,” Ufot said. “But I started being like ‘No, I don’t need to do this. I can start applying for things that are more geared to what I want to do in life and things that wouldn’t be just a job, but would be a foundation for a career.’”
Terry and Ufot are not the only recent graduates bludgeoned by the COVID-19 economy.
“If you look historically, the people who enter the job market when there is a recession essentially start out doing worse,” UW-Madison professor of economics Barbara Wolfe said. “But they never really close the gap” between themselves and those who enter the job market during economic prosperity.
The class of 2020 is expected to experience financial hardships similar to burdens borne by the class of 2008, which joined the workforce during and shortly following the collapse of America’s housing market. Recent graduates searching for full-time positions could be forced to compete with recently unemployed Millennials and Generation Xers, who hold significantly more work experience.
“When young adults exit college during a recession, there’s some really strong evidence that not only is it more difficult for them to find jobs, the jobs that they end up taking have lower salaries that have long-term implications for the rest of their career trajectories and their salary trajectories compared to cohorts that leave school when there isn’t a recession,” UW-Madison professor of consumer science Fenaba Addo explained.
The class of 2008 salary trend line may look similar to others, for example, but slashed entry-level wages create a wealth gap between graduating classes. The 2008 financial crisis and the ongoing unemployment crisis are not entirely comparable, however.
“There were policy-based solutions” to the 2008 crisis, Addo said, to “help the economy and restore a little bit of faith.” The current situation, in contrast, is driven by an ongoing pandemic.
“There’s so much uncertainty around when the vaccine will come,” Addo said. “I think people are operating under a very different system and are trying to make decisions based on this uncertainty.”
Perhaps the scariest part of this 2020 recession is the absence of a timeline. It’s unclear when the pandemic will end, but it’s safe to say recent graduates are already feeling the effects. And this is especially true for people of color.
“Who’s going to be able to weather the economic downturn are people who already have wealth,” Addo explained. “And those are disproportionately more likely to be white households.”
The CARES Act temporarily suspended payments, interest and collections on all government-held federal student loans. However, the stimulus bill only applied to federal loans, leaving students borrowers with private loans in precarious positions. The emergency relief bill also ends on Sept. 30th and it is currently unclear whether payment suspensions will be extended or if other executive action will be taken within the next four weeks. Black students are more likely to have student loans, so they are more likely to be impacted by the pandemic’s economic fallout, Addo added.
“Being in a financial position where you have to work puts you in a position where you’re more at risk,” Ufot said. “It tends to be more Black, Brown and indigenous students of color — on campus, that is just the reality.”
Black and Latino college students are more likely to be from low-income families and rely on part-time jobs. Black people with college degrees are also more likely to be unemployed than graduates of other races. Young Black college graduates had an unemployment rate of 9.4 percent in 2016 — higher than the peak unemployment rate for young white college graduates (9.0 percent) in 2011 during recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
“You can die and your family will either be rich or poor,” Terry said. “With Black and Brown populations, I feel like the intergenerational wealth isn’t there.”
Terry grew up as a low-income student in the Milwaukee Public School system during the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. She was able to witness socio-economic intersections with race first-hand.
“My worst nightmare is to go through that again,” Terry said. “I don’t know what the future will hold.”
Though UW-Madison economics professors and career experts predict long-term economic hardship for the class of 2020 as a whole, there are ways for recent graduates to build up resumes and create desirable profiles while unemployed.
“The best thing you can do is go to grad school,” Wolfe said. “The opportunity cost of taking another couple of years to get a graduate degree for the class of 2020 is very low because the opportunities are not good.”
Wolfe pointed out, however, that the economic payoff for enrolling in graduate school is dependent on a student’s career path. Those who receive a master’s in business, for example, have higher chances of gaining enough compensation to pay off graduate school debt than those who receive a master’s in public health. Those entering the finance and accounting fields are more likely to be recruited for full-time positions months prior to their graduations, while recruitment for education and arts jobs usually occur in spring semesters, career expert Patricia Mullins explained.
“They pretty much dried up,” Mullins said of positions in artistic and educational fields. Though aware the class of 2020 is unlikely to recover from the COVID-19 economy entirely, Mullins advised recent graduates unable to secure immediate full-time entry-level positions to consider working available part-time jobs, start small businesses or nonprofits and even learn new languages. The value of these activities can be hidden, Mullins explained; a simple part-time job could turn into a relevant pandemic story to tell in future interviews.
“You have to think outside the box,” Mullins said. She encouraged recent graduates to ask, “What can I do now that can add to my skills?” Being creative during this time, Mullins explained, can demonstrate personal value to prospective employers.
“Keep networking, even in areas where there aren’t jobs,” Mullins said. “Prepare for a slower hiring process.”
Though the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated many job opportunities for graduates, Wolfe said, the class of 2020 may find themselves unexpectedly pulled into careers in public health, healthcare and food sustainability.
There could be an overlooked glimmer of hope for the class of 2020: an urge to heal and improve systems after a devastating pandemic.
“There’s a lot more awareness of a lot of the failures we have, whether it has to do with racial inequalities, wealth inequalities, access to healthcare,” Wolfe said. “And all those opportunities mean that there should be a lot of interesting jobs out there.”