Canceled jobs, hiring freezes, and general uncertainty for the future have taken job opportunities from many students amid the COVID-19 pandemic—but this is just a reflection of a larger issue. The U.S. economy is entering a recession that threatens to be worse than any other in the past: the Great Lockdown. Small businesses across the country are in danger of closing, the unemployment rate is the highest it has been since the Great Depression, government responses are slow and hard to access, and experts are unsure of the path for recovery for industries impacted the most.
“We are asking young people to do a lot here, which just seems kind of paradoxical because what we're asking most people to do is stay home,” says Caitlin Zaloom, a sociologist and professor at New York University whose work focuses on the intersection of culture, student finance, and the economy. “But in staying home, they’re also sacrificing the lives that they could be building.”
Studies have shown that students graduating into an economic recession tend to have lower incomes over time, take longer to establish their careers, and are more vulnerable to social consequences—like less-stable family lives and health issues later in life. Also, students who are not graduating this semester face other immediate concerns, including their ability to pay their student contribution for financial aid, which is a portion of tuition that students are expected to pay through scholarships, summer employment, work-study, or other jobs.
The uncertainty of what this pandemic might mean for young peoples’ futures—within specific industries, in the immediate future, or over the course of their lives—creates a far-reaching feeling of fear for all who are impacted.
The Great Lockdown
Barnard senior Alisha Sahay has felt the impacts of the Great Lockdown firsthand. Most of the companies she has heard back from have enacted hiring freezes that seem to be in place for the foreseeable future.
“The job search has been a little bit frustrating because it’s not like there’s anything wrong with me or my background; it’s purely just something that companies are going through,” she tells me.
“It's definitely really scary,” she adds later. For her and much of the class of 2020, the lack of jobs is at the forefront of their minds. “This whole job situation is all I can really think about because before any of this started, it was so clear as to what I was going to be doing. But now I have no clue,” Sahay says.
With data from LionSHARE, a job posting site for Columbia students hosted by Handshake, we can see where some of this uncertainty is coming from. Postings rates right now are among the lowest of this academic year. The only other time of year that experienced similar lows was late December—an annual period with historically low job openings and, according to Forbes, with 26 percent fewer new hires than any typical month.
Since March 7, the average job postings on LionSHARE has been consistently low, as compared to average posting rates since September 2019.
Of the job postings that remain, a rising percentage of them are remote. Even so, the number of remote postings is still relatively small compared to all of the jobs advertised on LionSHARE. Further, not all industries can transfer to remote jobs.
There are not enough remote jobs on LionSHARE to draw a conclusion on the national availability of remote opportunities. The pre-quarantine norm for remote work, however, only included a minority of most jobs. According to the 2017-18 American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 29 percent of workers were able to work from home.
According to that survey, finance, professional and business services, and information (including Internet and software) are the three industries that employ the largest percentage of people who are able to work from home in non-pandemic times. Meanwhile, leisure, hospitality, agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting are the industries that are the least able to transition to remote work.
At Columbia, economics and computer science are the most popular fields of study, so jobs in finance, business, and technology are common pathways for graduates. In fact, software engineering, business analytics, and management consulting are among the most common fields for jobs posted on LionSHARE.
These figures are likely to change because of how COVID-19 has pushed workers who would not ordinarily have the opportunity to work from home find creative ways to do so.
“How we’re going to understand this going forward and the uncertainty there really is quite extreme because it isn’t only that there will be fewer jobs. … We’re heading into a massive economic contraction,” Zaloom says. “But the question is going to be: What is the distribution of jobs that are there and still available to people?”
In order to examine that question, we can also organize LionSHARE posting data by industry and note the percentage change in the average daily posting of different industries after March 1. Some industries have been omitted because they have limited job postings.
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The industries that have had the largest decrease relative to other industries in daily postings are not surprising—among them service sector staples:
Those least impacted are not surprising either. Many of them relate to the health sector:
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Service sector industries are some that Alexander Hertel-Fernadez, a political economist and associate professor who studies relationships between business, labor, and public policy at the School of International and Public Affairs, thinks will face some of the largest changes over time.
“Will we still have places like Las Vegas in two years?” Hertel-Fernandez asks. “Given that people may be really uncomfortable being in large social gatherings like that, will people still be comfortable taking long, international trips with hundreds of people on a plane tightly together?”
Sandra Black, an economics professor at the School of International and Public Affairs whose research focuses on labor and education, adds that the service industry, especially in comparison to other industries, has an uncertain future after the pandemic. She says, the tech industry, for example, will be able to adapt easily, “whereas anything to do with the service sector is struggling to figure out kind of what their future looks like.”
The tech industry is an interesting case, as it is one of the few industries that has experienced increased consumer demand. Tech companies, especially the largest ones, will likely recover quickly from the pandemic. Black goes on to point out some examples of how tech has grown during the pandemic.
“Who had heard of Zoom before this? Now everyone’s using Zoom. The idea of telehealth, the healthcare market online, is something that hasn’t really been explored much, but now I think it’ll probably kind of become much bigger going forward once people start adopting that kind of technology,” Black said. “All the tech industry is probably going to have a whole lot of demand now.”
Telemedicine answers some of the questions of what healthcare will look like in the future. Healthcare has been harder hit in the number of LionSHARE postings, but as Zaloom notes, it might be more appreciated than ever. “There are certain professions, it seems to me, that are going to be seen as more and more essential, which also happened to be professions that were already on the rise, and particularly in healthcare.”
Other health-related jobs seem to be relatively less impacted than some of those in the service industry. The industries of medical devices, biotech and life sciences, and research, while impacted, have not experienced a drastic change relative to the data for other industries.
Sahay is hoping to work in media and journalism after graduation, but as pickings are slim, she is expanding her search to anything adjacent to her interests—and is really open to anything that will help her gain experience.
“It feels like everything is dark and you’re just blindly trying to grasp at anything that comes your way,” she says.
Searching for a job in an economic shutdown is like wading into uncharted waters. Black notes that coronavirus recession is unlike those we have experienced. Health restrictions, shutdowns, and hiring freezes at many institutions, including Columbia and Barnard, makes the job search even harder.
“I think this is the case where we know that it’s hard during the recession and you take less-desirable jobs and it makes it harder to get caught up to people who start out their careers in better times” Black says. “There aren’t even really jobs to find because of the pandemic. And so I think we don’t know what the consequences are going to be.”
Hertel-Fernadez cautions that “graduating in a recession has very deep economic and social costs for individuals over their entire lives.” He says, “In good times, the jobs that you get immediately after graduating from college are very important because they set you up for the trajectory that you’re going to have going forward.”
Immediate Consequences: a Jobless Summer
On April 14, Barnard announced that it would waive its summer contribution for incoming and returning students in light of the pandemic. Since the fall, Heven Haile, a Columbia College junior, and Colby King, a Columbia College sophomore, have been leading the charge to similarly eliminate the student contribution for Columbia College students on financial aid.
Haile and King have been collecting testimonials from students in an effort to get rid of the student contribution, but the pandemic has added urgency to this push for reform. “It’s really shitty that it took a pandemic to finally make some progress on this,” Haile says. As students lose jobs that would have helped pay their contribution, it will be even harder for some to afford this coming semester. Haile hopes that the pandemic will lead to the long-term abolishment of the student contribution and to more changes to financial aid at Columbia.
This reform could have a significant, positive impact on a large portion of students. Ana Barrios, a Columbia College junior, whose internship at the United Nations for the summer was postponed, will, fortunately, be able to complete her work remotely. But she explained that she relies on funding from that job to pay her student contribution and support her family. “For the summer, if I’m not able to do this, or if I don't get funding because it got postponed, then I’m going to have to see if I [can] get hired at Domino’s or something,” she says.
Compounding their feelings of financial uncertainty, students might be missing essential career-building and networking opportunities. Jennie Yu, a Barnard sophomore, lost an internship at the United States Department of Homeland Security, where she had been working since September and was planning to continue there this summer.
“It was actually really disappointing. This was the first internship I’ve had that I could say I 100 percent enjoyed it, even though I was getting up at 5:30 a.m. and had [to travel] an hour and a half,” Yu says.
Other students share Yu’s feeling of disappointment. Paul Spezza, a junior in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, had planned to spend most of his summer sponsored by Columbia while he worked with a nonprofit organization in Northern Uganda. This work would be an extension of his work with GlobeMed, a student organization on campus.
The opportunity was especially unique for Spezza. “I was really looking forward to engaging with a new community, a new aspect of healthcare, and seeing how I could connect my engineering to more purposes for general humanity,” he shares.
However, after University President Lee Bollinger’s announcement on April 23, Spezza learned that this internship, along with another Columbia-sponsored trip to Ecuador he was planning to attend, was canceled. Though Spezza recognized that traveling to Uganda would put the community that he intended to serve at risk, he was disappointed.
“So much of what you can do in the labor market depends on the skills that you gained, the connections that you need, the work experiences that you had,” Hertel-Fernandez says, “and if you are missing that first or second or third stepping stone, it’s really hard to rebuild that trajectory. It takes a long time.”
Barrios acknowledges the importance of her own connections in the context of her internship at the U.N. “Just through interacting with my bosses and other people that already work there, [this internship] makes getting an entry-level job a lot easier.” In Barrios’ eyes, her job will help her access multilateral and international organizations—where she hopes to work after she graduates.
Spezza views this summer as an opportunity for alternative forms of career advancement. For example, he found a COVID-19-related competition affiliated with Johns Hopkins University: the Design COVID-19 Design Challenge. For this challenge, students and professionals formed teams to brainstorm immediate solutions to some of the largest issues the pandemic poses.
“I do recognize that the track of my professional development has changed significantly because of limitations placed on us and having travel restrictions,” Spezza shares. “So in terms of those experiences, I know that at least at this point, I won’t be able to get them back, but maybe [some] time in the future, I’ll be able to have that experience either over winter break or next year. Luckily, I’m only a junior, so there is a bit more time for me.”
Long Term: The Class of COVID-19
The time Spezza says he has to make up for this summer’s lost opportunities is not available to graduating students. Though the future is still uncertain, one way to understand the present situation is with insight from classes that graduated in similar situations.
“I graduated from college in 2008. [It was] right at the top of the Great Recession, and I saw many of my friends and classmates really struggling initially to get jobs, to get even internships,” Hertel-Fernandez says. “It’s been heartbreaking to see how long it took for many of them to establish the sort of careers that I think they would have wanted.”
When Hertel-Fernandez graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in political science, he was lucky to secure an internship at a political think tank—which eventually became a full-time job. He felt especially grateful when he saw that many of his friends were not as fortunate.
This, in a nutshell, is an example of the phenomenon known as scarring—the long-term effects on people from a particular economic or social experience. In this case, those unlucky enough to be entering the job market during a recession face outcomes that compound over time.
Research shows that college graduates who enter the workforce during a recession earn less for at least 10 to 15 years than those who graduate with the same level of education during periods of economic growth. Additionally, at least one study shows that those same graduates are less likely to have a stable family and are more likely to suffer from “deaths of despair,” or deaths related to substance abuse or other unhealthy habits.
Data from Columbia graduates reflect this trend. According to data from the United States Department of Education’s College Scorecard, members of the classes of 2007, 2009, and 2011 who were employed six years after enrolling at the University had similar average incomes. But 10 years after enrolling at the University, the class of 2009 had a lower average income than the classes of 2007 and 2011.
Mean income of employed Columbia undergraduates
However, over time, the mean income
for the class of 2009 is lower than
that of classes that did not graduate
during the Great Recession.
Student incomes six years
after first enrolling at Columbia are
similar across classes.
Mean income of $90K
8 years after enrolling
6 years after enrolling
10 years after enrolling
Class of 2009
Class of 2011
Class of 2007
Class of 2013
Source: College Scorecard
Graphic by Eve Washington
Mean income of employed Columbia
Over time the mean income for the class of 2009 is lower than that of classes that did not graduate during the Great Recession.
Mean income of 90K
Number of years after enrolling
Class of 2007
Class of 2009
Class of 2011
Class of 2013
Source: College Scorecard
Graphic by Eve Washington
At the start of a new recession, the classes of 2020 and 2021 could end up in a similar position as the classes of 2008 and 2009. However, it is not necessarily fair to compare these two periods of economic decline.
“In some ways, it’s hard to compare the two—the Great Recession to now—because folks that are graduating in May or in June may still well be in quarantine or social distancing,” Hertel-Fernandez says. “During the great recession, fewer companies were hiring, but ways to get your foot in the door are no longer an option during stay-at-home.”
Given the public health consequences of COVID-19, it is impossible to predict the severity of the recession. “It’s quite possible the [recession] that we’re going through right now is going to be many times larger,” Hertel-Fernandez adds.
In the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook for April, experts projected world gross domestic product growth in 2020 to fall by 3 percent. This pales in comparison to the Great Recession’s 0.1 percent decline, making the crisis the world’s worst recession since the Great Depression.
For students and graduates alike, this means tremendous uncertainty and fear of the future. Though it is impossible to speculate the consequences of this recession entirely, the biggest factor in determining the future is the policy decisions being made right now.
“A lot of people are really focused on reopening the economy and what we really need to think about [is] how to do it in a situation where the underlying problem is not a demand-driven problem or a lack of consumer demand. It’s really this virus that we need to figure out how to manage,” Black says.
“I think a lot of the recovery depends on our responses now and how the government responds in terms of giving money to businesses and which businesses they target. So if we target big corporations, if we leave the small businesses, suffering then, as you might imagine, the small businesses will close and the largest will survive.”
Hertel-Fernandez adds that policy changes also impact the individual. “How much help the government gives to boost the economy is going to make a big difference in whether or not in 30 years young people are going to have good economic, good social prospects.”
As graduates adapt to this new economic reality, it feels like a strange, daunting end to their four years. “I think the class of 2020 definitely had a perception of what [its] senior spring was going to look like,” Sahay says. She pauses and remembers that yesterday was supposed to be her senior gala.
“I would’ve pictured myself getting ready with my friends, going to a senior gala, and knowing that I had a job in my hand. [Then] just spending these last few days and weeks with friends who I knew I wasn't going to see again,” she says. “Knowing and having the sense of stability, knowing that I kind of knew what the next step was, which was going to be work at some job. But now that’s all suspended in the air at the moment. It does feel daunting.”
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