Mia Maloney had what every college senior wants: a cool paid internship in her field secured months before graduation.
The USC senior had accepted her dream role as a marketing intern at a record label in Nashville that represents some of her favorite artists.
Then it was gone.
Because of the uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak, the company called her in March and rescinded its offer.
Worse yet, it wasn’t even the first time this had happened to her. Two weeks earlier, a similar company had revoked Maloney’s first internship offer for the same reason.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “You can’t blame them for making these tough decisions in such an unprecedented time, but it’s unfortunate to be on the receiving end of it.”
Now as Maloney, 21, finishes her final semester online in her childhood bedroom in the Bay Area town of Alamo, she’s staring down the May 15 graduation date that heralds her entrance into this coronavirus-wrecked economy, for which her years of school did not prepare her.
U.S. unemployment soared to 14.7% in April, the highest since at least the 1940s. More than 33 million Americans have filed new applications for jobless benefits since President Trump declared COVID-19 a national emergency in March. State and local authorities issued stay-at-home orders hoping to stop the spread of the contagious disease. As nonessential businesses shut, many employers slashed their workforces, cutting hours and jobs.
This job market is tough even for the most experienced workers. For those trying to launch a new career, it’s even more daunting.
“It’s the worst thing I have ever seen,” said Jane Oates, who served as the Department of Labor’s assistant secretary for employment and training in the Obama administration. “They are about to enter the employment market at a time when absolutely nobody knows what to predict.”
A poor economy can drastically affect new graduates.
Last decade, the Great Recession shrank the U.S. workforce by 8.8 million jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. When the recession ended in June 2009, the unemployment rate for college graduates ages 20 to 24 was 10.8%, according to Federal Reserve Economic Data, higher even than the national rate of 9.5%. In April of this year, the jobless rate for college graduates that age surged higher still, to 17.2%.
Those who do land jobs after graduating during a recession tend to start at lower salaries than their counterparts whose careers start in good economies. And they don’t catch up quickly: For white men who graduated during the 1980s recession, lower wages persisted for a decade or more, according to research by Lisa B. Kahn, who is now an economics professor at the University of Rochester.
A recession can also slow graduates’ career progression, making them take less prestigious jobs and wait longer for promotions, said Emily Bianchi, associate professor of organization and management at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. During the Great Recession, nearly half of college graduates in the early stages of their careers were underemployed, according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
That financial ripple effect hurts other areas of graduates’ lives too. Millennials, who came of age during the Great Recession, have struggled mightily to pay off student debt, buy homes and save for retirement.
Current college students and recent graduates also carry a large student debt load. And those listed as dependents on their parents’ tax returns were disqualified from receiving the $1,200 federal stimulus checks announced in March.
Unlike the Great Recession, the pandemic struck abruptly, reversing years of economic progress in mere weeks. The uncertainty of how long the effects will last may complicate the prospects for new graduates.
“It’s hard to know how long this recovery will take, whether things are going to snap back into place or whether it’s going to take a little bit longer,” said Amanda Stansell, senior economic research analyst at the job-search website Glassdoor. “That’s going to have different ramifications for new grads finding a job, getting paid fairly, those sorts of things.”
Imminent graduates face an uphill battle on two fronts, Oates said. There are fewer jobs available, creating more competition. And whenever jobs return, she said, companies will most likely rehire the talent they originally let go.
And there aren’t obvious places to turn. As payrolls nationwide shrank by more than 20 million jobs last month, the losses cut across all industry sectors.
“For job seekers right now, it’s trying to figure out not who the growth industries are, but who the industries are that are going to be able to come back with any vibrancy at all,” said Oates, who now serves as president of WorkingNation, a nonprofit focusing on advocacy surrounding unemployment issues. “You’re looking at industries that are completely reformatted.”
Samantha Herrera Fuentes Davila, a senior at UC Santa Barbara, said she’s been adjusting her approach. The 22-year-old sociology major is interested in public health and energy, and she dreams of working in administration for the United Nations.
But after seeing some friends’ parents lose jobs at businesses that were deemed not essential during the pandemic, she broadened her search. She began looking for positions at companies whose services have seen a recent surge in demand, such as streaming video firms.
“I’m trying to be a lot smarter about it,” she said. “I don’t know how necessary my interests are, and unless I work for one of those companies, I think I would probably be stuck at home not having a job.”
Spencer Petty, a USC senior, said she is still processing how this will change her job-search strategy. The 22-year-old is seeking a career in sales and marketing and most recently completed an internship at KABC-TV Channel 7 in Los Angeles. She said she has applied for at least 25 positions — and the companies all either rejected her or haven’t responded.
Her parents and other mentors told her not to expect the perfect job right after graduation. The current economic situation makes that advice even more relevant, she said.
“I’ve had these amazing internships and I’ve seen my dream jobs,” Petty said. “Now, I’m trying to face reality that I’m not going to be there immediately. ... I need to take whatever is available and just get some experience under my belt.”
Suzanne Alcantara, director of career development at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said she advised students in the Great Recession to expand their skill sets and professional networks. Those methods apply now, too, she said.
Maloney and Petty have both talked with USC alumni, and both spend time perfecting their LinkedIn profiles and resumes. Oates said those measures are prudent, and said students should also consider learning new skills, such as coding.
“If you show a prospective employer that you didn’t just sit around and waste time between your classes in this incredibly difficult time, but also added these credentials to your portfolio, you’ll be showing that you had the grit and resilience that you are looking for in an employee,” she said.
While many notable companies, such as Disney and Yelp, have rescinded internship offers, 75% of employers in a survey administered by UCLA in March said they are still hiring. AT&T, IBM, Deloitte and Bank of America are some companies that confirmed to The Times that they will still honor internship and job offers.
Graduating in a recession can also produce good character traits, Bianchi said. Her research shows that such graduates are happier with their jobs, show more gratitude and are less narcissistic compared with graduates in a good economy. The negative things they endure early in their career make them more appreciative later on, she said.
“When you first enter the workforce at a time when jobs are very scarce, when you’ve seen your friends have the rug pulled up from under them, when it’s hard to just find a job, those experiences tend to make people more grateful when they do land one.”
Meanwhile, Maloney, Herrera Fuentes Davila and Petty are home with their parents, preparing for virtual graduation ceremonies that they’ll have to celebrate far away from the friends and mentors with whom they bonded in college.
They’re networking with anyone they can, applying anywhere they can imagine a fit.
All three say they’re hopeful for the future. But they know things may be uncertain for a while. “It’s definitely a tough time to get your foot in the door,” Maloney said.
For now, they wait.