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Don’t panic: Advice for college grads on navigating pandemic job market

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Graduating college and heading out into the workforce is usually an exciting time. But when the pandemic hit, it caused the nation’s economy to shut down and had a dramatic effect on job opportunities.

While experts say it could take years for the economy to fully recover, a local career service advisor is telling students not to panic.

“It’s crazy. It is not something I ever imagined myself going through,” Kelly Soares said. “[The pandemic] feels like something you learn about in history class. It’s not something you expect to live through.”

Soares graduated from Western Connecticut State University in May with a degree in theater arts management.

“I think the entertainment industry as a whole, a lot of what we do is so important because we take people out of the world we live in, and the world we live in isn’t always a beautiful place,” she added.

Soares said when it comes to theater, it’s all about connections. She was hoping to create contacts through a very competitive internship with the Disney College Program once she landed a spot in the attractions department and was lined up to work there this summer.

“I was supposed to start May 8, if memory serves me, and as things progressed, slowly it was – we’re delaying you, we’re putting you on hold, and eventually the entire internship was canceled,” Soares recalled.

She isn’t alone. College graduates across the country had internships and job offers rescinded because of the pandemic. An economic professor at Bryant University said this is one of the worst economic downfalls this country has seen.

“Over the last few decades, we have not seen anything so severe as what we have seen now with COVID-19,” Professor Edinaldo Tebaldi said.

Tebaldi currently serves on Gov. Gina Raimondo’s economic advisory committee. He said Rhode Island often feels economic downturns more deeply because of a shift in the labor market after the Great Recession of 2008.

“The number of jobs we had prior to COVID and what we have right now is about the same,” Tebaldi said. “The problem is we became more dependent on leisure and hospitality, and on the transportation sector, that was most affected at this point.”

When compared to the 2008 recession, Tebaldi said it’s more difficult now for college graduates to navigate the workforce and find a job.

“It’s a much more competitive market. Way more candidates apply for fewer positions that makes it harder to negotiate compensation than what it was in 2008 and 2009,” Tebaldi explained. “If the skills of those students were aligned with those sectors that were the most affected ones, then it would be challenging at this point for them to find a job.”

So, what does this mean for Soares and the other college graduates who have lost opportunities? Kevin Gaw, the executive director of Bryant University’s Amica Center for Career Education, offered some advice: don’t panic.

“They’re going to have to figure out a way to identify another path way that will help them stay involved and keep learning, and once the economy starts to open in those sectors, they can then apply for those opportunities,” he said.

And just like Soares planned to network and create connections, Gaw said students should be doing that now.

“It’s the engaged students, the one that’s really working hard: networking with employers, applying strategically to jobs and opportunities that actually match their credentials,” he explained.

He suggested that some students may have to accept an opportunity that would help “bridge them” into where they want to be.

“It’s important for them to stay involved in that professional identity in that world,” he said. “When the time is right, they’ll be able to transition more successfully.”

He also advised students to reach out to their college’s career service department for additional help and support.

It’s unclear at this time how many Bryant students have been hired since they graduated this year. Gaw said many schools typically start collecting that data six months after graduation, adding that Bryant’s institutional research office is currently doing so for the class of 2020.

However, he did say that a survey of the university’s top 10 recruiting employers revealed that as of late September, three of those companies have hired more Bryant students out of this year’s class compared to the 2019 class.

Gaw said students from the class of 2021 have also reported receiving summer job offers.

As for Soares, her backup plan is to work as an EMT but she’s hopeful the theater industry will bounce back.

“It’s going to take some time but I’m not giving up on this,” she said.

Despite the challenging job market, data shows those who have a college degree are 40% more likely to land a job than those without one, according to Tebaldi. He also said the unemployment rate has been dropping over the last four months, and recent college graduates have been getting hired.

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