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The Class of 2020: unemployed, taking on debt and struggling to pay the bills

CNBC’s “College Voices 2020” is a series written by CNBC summer interns from universities across the country about coming of age, launching new careers and job hunting during a global pandemic. They’re finding their voices during a time of great social change and hope for a better future. What money issues are they facing? How are they navigating their student loans? How are they getting work experience, networking and applying for jobs when so many opportunities have been canceled or postponed? How important is diversity and a company’s values to Gen Z job seekers?

2020 is undoubtedly a difficult time to graduate college. The seniors who may have assumed that they’d have things figured out by the time they got their diplomas are, for the most part, coming to terms with the effects of the pandemic on the job market, all while juggling the stress of student loans, family layoffs, and the devastating health impacts of the coronavirus.  

In an April 2020 survey conducted by Student Loan Hero, 72% of graduating seniors reported that the Covid-19 crisis had already impacted their post-graduation plans. And, while the unemployment rate has improved since then, 18.6% of people between the ages of 16 and 24 are still unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And, with all the uncertainty in the economy due to the coronavirus pandemic, there are more layoffs and hiring freezes, which means it’s even harder to find a job if you’re right out of college. In a survey of 132 organizations, employment research platform Talent Board found that 74% of companies were reducing hiring in some capacity, 32% of which were freezing hiring completely. 

A financial and emotional struggle

So many students lost their jobs this summer and are having a hard time finding work that it has increased their financial stress. More than a third of students have taken on debt, with 17% taking on credit-card debt and 16% borrowing additional student loans, according to a survey by Student Loan Hero.

Graham Curry, a recent graduate of Miami University of Ohio, shares the common concerns about paying off loans and making ends meet.

Graham Curry, recent graduate of the Miami University Ohio, has taken on freelance design and a local tech internship to remain proactive during the pandemic

Photo:  Mark Curry

“I’m still figuring out how that’s all going to work out,” said Curry, who had received a small refund from the university for on-campus fees and had relied on a four-year scholarship for tuition. Curry is also one of the many students who returned home at the onset of the pandemic, but still had to pay his apartment rent through the final months of the lease. 

“It really sucked paying for a place that I wasn’t living in. That fee has definitely drained my resources,” Curry said.

Curry hopes to use his degree in interactive media studies to work in game design. However, canceled in-person conferences and industry networking events this spring meant he was unable to meet other developers and secure a full-time role. His mother was laid off in March and several family members have contracted and died from coronavirus, so this has been an emotional struggle for him as well as a financial one.

“It’s hard to deal with your family struggling in such a huge manner, but we’re getting through it as best we can like everyone else is.” 

Emergency grants provide short-term relief

Universities have tried to provide financial support to students during these times through decreases in tuition, grants, and aid programs. 

The University of Maryland, among other colleges and universities, received a $21 million grant from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, part of the $2 trillion dollar implementation of the CARES Act. This $21 million grant was distributed to students seeking financial assistance, specifically those who were impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. More than 5,000 students have been awarded funds from the grant so far.

Hannah Roseme, a rising junior at the University of Maryland, said the grant was a big help.

Hannah Roseme, rising junior at the University of Maryland hanging out on the quad prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

Photo: Mia Fillipine

“The grant program at Maryland has provided extensive assistance to students like myself, friends and many others I know. We were facing so many concerns financially due to the semester ending so quickly — rent costs, meal plan expenses and obviously job-related losses due to the pandemic. I was unable to continue with my babysitting job which helps finance my time at school — the grant program really provided me with some much needed relief during this time so that I wasn’t incredibly stressed regarding my finances, in addition to worrying about online school, my well being and the safety of my family,” said Roseme, who is originally from Westport, Connecticut.

Alternative work solutions: internships, unpaid opportunities and freelancing

For graduates like Curry, taking an internship rather than a full-time job provides a short-term solution to maintaining income, work experience, and connections. Curry will spend the next three months interning at a local tech company in Dayton, where he hopes to learn coding languages and software-development skills. 

“I feel like there’s a bit of a bubble right now, which in some cases is pretty helpful,” Curry said. “I plan to build up my skills so I can hopefully find further success later on.”

Freelance design work is another route for graduates to secure additional income and stay proactive. “My motivation to find supplemental income through freelance or making some other business has skyrocketed,” said Curry. “Financial independence is so crucial right now, so exploring those avenues of income is something else I do in my free time.”

Rachel Kivo, who graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in journalism, has applied to multiple jobs every day since graduation. She recently secured an internship with the Q Project, a platform that finds creative ways to provide technology for low-income people.

“I did expect to get a job after graduation, but offers aren’t coming so easily so taking an internship is something I can fall back on,” she said. Although it is unpaid, Kivo is grateful to be able to work from her family home and save money over the next few months while taking on this unique opportunity. “This is the best option for me because I really like what the Q Project stands for, so I’m excited to be a part of that.”

Staying hopeful during these tumultuous times

Without a clear light at the end of the tunnel, it has been challenging for students to try to stay optimistic.

“Honestly it’s been rough and it takes a toll on your mental health,” said Baylor University graduate Saloni Khushal, who also feels disheartened by the lack of job opportunities. “The job market is so saturated and you have to remind yourself that everyone is on a different path,” she said. 

“But we have to just keep on keeping on. No one planned for this and it’s out of our control so we can’t get mad at ourselves,” added Khushal. In the meantime, she is helping with marketing and operations at her family’s hotel business as well as working in a part-time unpaid social media position for online-dating platform Blind Love Letters.

Saloni Khushal, graduate of Baylor University, is using this time to help with her family business and take on a part-time social media role

Photo: Margaret Carissa

 “It was especially hard to feel motivated every day when I felt I had no structure,” said Kivo. “To create structure, I would write a to-do list and apply to a certain number of jobs every day. It’s also comforting to know that everyone else is in a similar situation.”

For Curry, self-care and productivity help him remain positive. “I’m trying to use this time to focus on myself. I’m teaching myself guitar, working on my web design skills, taking care of plants, and even working out more often.”

Narbeh Minasians, director of social and digital at Nickelodeon and a 2008 graduate who entered a similarly bleak job market during the financial crisis, notices the similarities in the sentiments of 2020 graduates, but more importantly, the added pressures this new generation is facing.

“Graduating in a crisis provides an opportunity to really pause and reset a very tumultuous timeline. For this generation, however, there’s information overload everywhere and that can be overwhelming for your mental health,” he said. “Find ways to unplug and not consume negative information all the time. Find other productive uses of your time and put energy into more positive things.”

Minasians also encourages recent grads to make the most of their family and community support, including living at home and taking time to assess your career options. “When you lift the pressure of having to pay rent and pay for bills and ‘adult,’ it really does allow you to see what your options are and try things you normally wouldn’t be able to try.” 

“Think abstractly about the skills you want to accumulate,” he added. “There are things that you will need in your future job that can potentially be learned and accumulated through different avenues. Focus on and sharpen those skills while you have this time and think about new opportunities from an abstract point of view.”

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