Out of Work and Desperate: Here's What College Graduates Are Facing and What They Can Do About It

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Almost a year after college graduation, 45% of the class of 2020 are still looking for work, according to a survey from career website Monster.

New graduates will join them in May.

While the economy has improved since last year, the employment outlook is still far from pre-pandemic levels. There were almost 7.9 million fewer Americans counted as employed in March 2021 than in February 2020.

"At the end of the day, we are still in the hole and we are still in a pandemic," said Nicole Smith, chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Meanwhile, younger workers are lagging behind. The overall unemployment rate for March was 6%, but 20- to 24-years old are facing a 10.3% unemployment rate.

The 2020 grads aren't eligible for unemployment benefits, although those who worked part-time may have qualified through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, created by the CARES Act. Benefits through that federal program have been extended through Labor Day.

The weak outlook has led many to take a job out of desperation, with 73% of recent or pending graduates saying they've done so, according to Monster's survey, which was conducted with Wakefield Research. It polled 1,000 U.S. adults ages 18-24 who are recent or upcoming grads, and 500 U.S. adults ages 18-24 who are non-graduates, between March 16 and March 26, 2021.

Kylie Mastricola, who graduated from Bethlehem, Pa.-based Moravian College last spring, saw many of her friends desperate just to get job interviews. The 23-year-old majored in psychology and women's, gender and sexuality studies and had been thinking about finding a corporate job, possibly in human resources. The pandemic changed all that.

"I felt extremely defeated and a little depressed," said Mastricola, who lives with her parents in Jefferson, N.J.

"Starting a career is a huge stress as it is, let alone the fact that the world had just shut down."

Kylie Mastricola graduated from college in 2020. Discouraged by the job outlook, she started her own business.
Source: Kylie Mastricola
Kylie Mastricola graduated from college in 2020. Discouraged by the job outlook, she started her own business.

She had a hard time finding jobs she was qualified for and getting interviews. Other jobs she saw didn't even require a college degree and there was still stiff competition to land a meeting, she said.

To make ends meet, Mastricola has spent the past year giving private swim lessons, nannying and reselling clothes on her Instagram account.

Hiring in 2021

There is cause for some optimism, said Monster career expert Vicki Salemi.

According to Monster's the Future of Work 2021 report, 82% of employers plan to hire this year.

"If they have a gap in their resume, they should realize that is not uncommon during such an unprecedented pandemic," she said.

Instead, employers mainly focus on evaluating first-time job seekers on their interview presence (61%), internship/work experience (55%), and cultural fit (34%), the Future of Work survey found.

That means job seekers should focus on practicing their interview skills, Salemi said. They should also think about different types of jobs, even freelance or temporary, to at least get their foot in the door.

"Once they get a job, they can always keep looking for a new one," she said.

While employers may want to hire, they are being cautiously optimistic, said Georgetown's Smith. Typically there is a lag between improvement in the economy and hiring. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the number of people employed won't return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024.

Those graduating this year may have a leg up on their predecessors. Employers project hiring 7.2% more new college graduates from the Class of 2021 than they did from the Class of 2020, according to a report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

They new grads may also have another advantage. Those who are long-term employed tend to have harder time getting jobs, and some of it is psychological, Smith said.

"Because the new graduates are coming in with all this energy, they might even have better outcomes just based on their own expectations, their grit and their drive," she noted.

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The best thing for everyone to do is to not focus on anyone else, and just focus on the job search and acing the interview, according to Salemi. Look forward, and not backwards and apply for jobs as soon as they land in your inbox.

"Employers are looking for dependability, adaptability, and problem solving skills," she said.

"Your communication skills can reflect that in an interview."

Mastricola has decided to pause her job hunt and instead is turning her clothing side-hustle into a full-time gig. She's now turning a profit of about $1,000 to $1,200 a week reselling clothing and is even looking for some retail space. While she is hopeful, she is still uncertain of where the future will take her.

"I am struggling with my mental health," she said. "I feel like I am transitioning out of college, even though I'm out almost a year now."

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