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May 13, 2020

“Our graduating seniors are demonstrating such resilience in the face of an unprecedented final year of college…,” a university president recently wrote to a campus community. Sadly, these students are going to need resilience as they face one of the most challenging job markets since the Great Depression, with the “real” unemployment rate (includes those not seeking work and the underemployed), per the latest jobs report, surging to nearly 23 percent. This, coupled with their loss of a traditional rite of passage, college commencement, could make for a daunting period for those embarking on this next phase of their lives. I am heartened though, by the many individuals and organizations working hard to help them celebrate their accomplishments and navigate their career searches.

Margaret Dunning with her mentee, Raissa Audrey Tseumie, an Economic Club of Washington scholar and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Trinity Washington University 

Technology continues to allow for impressive engagement, although of a different sort, as promised in the highly anticipated virtual commencements planned in the coming weeks. Facebook is sponsoring a virtual graduation ceremony featuring Oprah Winfrey, who will be joined by Simone Biles, Lil Nas X, Miley Cyrus and other headliners. President and Mrs. Barack Obama will soon address graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), in a National HBCU Commencement Celebration. Organized by Howard University, Paul Quinn College, the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, the Thurgood Marshal College Fund and the United Negro College Fund, underwriters include ESSENCE, JPMorgan Chase and the NBA. The Obamas will celebrate the Class of 2020 again in June and will be joined by Lady Gaga, the CEO of Alphabet and Google Sundar Pichai, Malala Yousafzai, former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Alicia Keys and other amazing speakers/performers. 

While these events do not replicate walking across the stage in front of family, friends and classmates to receive that hard-earned diploma - especially for first-generation graduates - these will be memorable events with videos that can be replayed and shared endless times. And most colleges and universities are planning their own virtual events as well as in-person ceremonies on dates to be determined later this year. One consolation for the Class of 2020 is very few future graduates will be able to say a former President of the United States, Oprah Winfrey and Lady Gaga were at their commencements!

Graduates generally begin a new job after commencement, but this is a challenging employment time for the Class of 2020. In recent years, campus Career Service centers have significantly enhanced their offerings, and, as soon as the full impact of COVID-19 became clear, these invaluable offices quickly moved to adapt to students’ needs. As this Pace University headline announced, “Career Services Has Gone Virtual.” In addition to supporting students, Pace is helping parents who have lost their jobs during the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, providing them with career resources and job search support. Chapman University offers helpful information for those seeking employment, including job search sites and “Covid-friendly lists” of companies that are hiring. By logging into the Handshake career-management system, Michigan State students can schedule a virtual appointment with a Career Advisor. Most university Career Services offices have been holding virtual job fairs with a variety of employers and providing seminars or one-on-one sessions offering counsel on job searches, resume writing and interviewing techniques. Some also offer a platform for an employer to conduct an interview with a student.

This Financial Times article notes that while some sectors, such as hospitality and tourism, are “badly affected,” there are industries that are vital and growing right now, including tech (per GeekWire, there is growth and contraction in tech). For graduates who had hoped to be employed in certain industries that have been particularly affected by the pandemic, this is demoralizing, although with time some will bounce back. As the article notes, those who are less well connected are likely to be more adversely affected, especially if access to technology is not strong.

One suggested proposal for the Class of 2020  is a national service program to employ these new graduates. It is definitely worth a more critical look and corresponding debate, although even with David Brooks call in a recent column for such a program, that does not appear likely any time soon.

We are all wishing the Class of 2020 a bright future, and for those of us who are in a position to mentor or hire these students there is an opportunity to help pave that road forward. The coronavirus crisis has doused the usual optimism and enthusiasm of graduates moving into careers, especially those without strong support systems or who’ve been directly affected by illness or economic strife. There will be an ongoing need to help them focus and persist toward their goals as the nation and the world recover.

 

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