KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As freshmen, they saw a robust economy waiting for them, where jobs and opportunities seemed plentiful. But in what feels like the blink of an eye, the class of 2020 watched that future swept away by the coronavirus pandemic.
Missouri and Kansas college seniors are entering a job market where an estimated 30 million people have filed for unemployment benefits in the last six weeks. Some grads and near-grads are migrating back home to regroup. Others are reshaping plans and dreams they’ve nurtured for years with hard work and student loans.
It’s not the spring 2020 they envisioned.
Economists said graduating seniors should prepare themselves for a rough entry into the real world.
“I think in the next couple of months, it’s going to be very dire for people who are just getting into the job market,” said Margaret Simms, a nonresident fellow at the Urban Institute.
“It’s stressful and it’s kind of disappointing,” said Kristin Thompson, a graduate student in social work at Washington University in St. Louis.
Though living with her mother has helped Thompson drive down living costs, she’s finding that post-graduation opportunities she thought would be available aren’t there, even for entry level jobs.
Thompson said the situation is especially frustrating because she’s worked hard and feels the professional goals she wants to achieve won’t be met quite as soon as she hoped.
Jayme Fletcher, an upcoming graduate from Kansas State University, originally had planned to work for Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Dallas after graduation. But after the 22-year-old returned from spring break around mid-March, the company rolled out a hiring freeze because of the financial toll the new coronavirus caused.
During her last semester, she’d been working at the Enterprise branch in Manhattan, Kansas, but her hours were reduced to zero.
“My plans are kind of up in the air,” said Fletcher, who graduates with a degree in business management next week.
The company has been communicating upcoming potential dates to start the hiring process with Fletcher. But in the meantime, she’s been applying to other companies that are hiring remotely.
“Having my plans get cut short as I’m starting this new chapter has been really frustrating, but especially because there’s really nothing anyone can do,” Fletcher said. “Everything has come to a standstill.”
Lisa Cook, a former economic adviser to President Barack Obama and economics professor at Michigan State University, said for many graduates a sense of adventure has been overtaken by uncertainty and anxiety.
“Now that they’re thinking about going to a major city, that dream is becoming somewhat of a nightmare,” Cook said.
Like Juaquin Robles, a 23-year-old New York University senior visiting MU through a fellowship with the Missouri Democratic Party. He originally planned to move to Washington, D.C., post-graduation. Now, he’s not so sure. And the proverbial five-year plan that college students often talk about is seemingly nonexistent.
“It seems like a huge setback for me, because it doesn’t seem like I’m going to be able to move forward with the economy that is worsening at the moment,” Robles said.
Erica Overvelt, a senior journalism student who lost her job at Columbia’s Arc Recreation Center early in the pandemic, knows firsthand the anxiety of leaving school and stepping into the unknown. She said she feels that college students have been “left in the dark.”
We’re the next generation of young professionals and I feel like there hasn’t been any help from the government at all. So, I know I’m not the only one feeling lost,” she said.
After a brief stay with her parents in Jefferson City after the MU campus shut down, she is back in her apartment, struggling to pay the rent.
The lack of options is made worse by the possibility that graduates might have to compete with more experienced workers who lost their jobs in the pandemic.
“New graduates are going to be competing with a large number of more experienced workers who have lost their jobs or who are on layoff and would be maybe the first people to come back as businesses reopen or move beyond skeleton staff,” Simms said.
It’s not just near-graduates who’ve been impacted by the unstable job market. Students still in college, who thought they had summer gigs locked down, are also grappling with undetermined employment. And there’s no assurance that even their part-time jobs will return.
“The effects are definitely most acute for those people who right this minute are graduating —the class of 2020 —those college graduates, but also there are impacts that are going to feed back onto sophomores and juniors,” Donna Ginther, director of the Institute for Policy & Social Research at the University of Kansas, said.
Nicole Smith, a University of Missouri sophomore, was working three jobs when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
She moved home to Rogersville after she lost her hours as a hostess at Texas Roadhouse. Her other jobs, nanny and teaching assistant, were not enough to cover the $570 rent on her Columbia apartment, let alone groceries and car insurance.
Smith planned to start a job as a camp counselor June 1. But that’s all up in the air now. She said it adds up to a feeling of moving down in the world at a time when she expected to be rising up.
She said it’s best described as “a slippery slope.”