Gen Z college grads struggle to launch careers in pandemic economy. ‘I chose the worst year to get my life together.’

 Kevin Zheng had big plans lined up as he prepared to graduate in the spring with a degree in criminal justice from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The 23-year-old thought he’d enter the job market well-prepared, with an internship at the Chicago Police Department on his resume.

But the COVID-19 health crisis upended that plan. His internship was canceled, his graduation was delayed until August, and he sat in his bedroom for the virtual commencement ceremony. Now he’s looking for a job in a pandemic-induced recession.

“I chose the worst year to get my life together,” said Zheng, a first-generation college graduate who lives in Chicago’s McKinley Park neighborhood.

Kevin Zheng, 23, a first generation college graduate from the University of Illinois at Chicago, poses for a photo in the backyard of his parents' home, Oct. 9, 2020.
Kevin Zheng, 23, a first generation college graduate from the University of Illinois at Chicago, poses for a photo in the backyard of his parents' home, Oct. 9, 2020. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

As the coronavirus pandemic wears on, Zheng and other recent college graduates are grappling with a tight job market, high unemployment rates, and pressure to find work to pay off student loans.

At the start of the year, Generation Z, typically defined as those born after 1997, was headed into the workforce during the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. But now the unemployment rate in Illinois for those ages 20 to 24 is 15.5%, one of the highest among all age groups in the state, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor.

With more employers cutting jobs and some boosting qualifications for open positions, recent college graduates are worried they’ll fall behind in their careers. Some are saving money for student loan payments by cutting expenses, while others are applying for part-time and low-wage jobs. Many still live with their parents.

Zheng, who lives with his parents and owes about $30,000 in student loans, said he is considering picking up part-time work, but he’s seen how difficult it can be. Both his parents work in the restaurant industry, often cobbling together shifts at different dining establishments to make a stable income. Zheng said he’s scared of taking a job that may expose him to the coronavirus and then potentially infecting his parents.

“My parents are on the older side. I’m afraid if I get the virus, I won’t be the one getting hurt. They’re going to be the ones seriously harmed by the virus. That’s also really deterred me from going out there too much,” he said.

Another UIC graduate, Serge Golota, 22, who earned a biochemistry degree in May, is moving from his Chicago apartment back to his parents' Glenview home because he hasn’t found a job.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 52% of young adults ages 18 to 29 reported in July they were living with one or both parents, an increase from a decade ago when 44% of young adults lived at home.

Golota, who has about $17,000 in student loan debt, said he applied to lab positions and broadened his search to include pharmaceutical sales, but potential employers aren’t calling back, or they’re asking for several years of experience. If he doesn’t find a job in the coming months, he might apply at retailers like Target or clothing stores to make money.

“I’ve felt really discouraged with the hiring process,” Golota said.

Experts say 2020 graduates could face similar challenges to millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996, who graduated at the height of the 2008 financial crisis.

Research on past graduates suggests Gen Z workers could face lower earnings in the future, persistently low employment rates, and fierce competition for jobs once the economy recovers.

Millennials who graduated during the 2008 recession saw their earnings for the next three to four years remain low compared with earlier graduates and those who graduated after the recession, said Jesse Rothstein, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley.

“If you are able to find a good job early on, that leads them to more growth in the next few years. Whereas if you are starting your careers at a time when there aren’t that many good jobs, that seems to be associated with not just worse outcomes right away but worse outcomes even after the economy has recovered,” Rothstein said.

Rothstein said employment rates for each group that graduated during and after the 2008 recession were about 2% lower relative to older workers despite the labor market steadily growing throughout the 2010s.

It remains to be seen how dramatically the pandemic-related downturn will hurt 2020 graduates, but experts say if the economy doesn’t bounce back quickly, the effects could linger.

Eliza Forsythe, assistant professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said companies tend to hire current-year graduates for entry-level positions over those who graduated a year or two earlier. Employers view current graduates as having sharper skills right out of college compared with past graduates, especially those who didn’t pick up relevant experience after getting their degrees, she said. Such decisions could further hinder the ability of people who graduated during a recession to find work within their field.

The job market could become even more strained in the coming months without federal relief as President Donald Trump and Congress grapple over a new coronavirus relief bill.

Airlineshotels, and other businesses are cutting more jobs, asking employees to take buyouts and pay cuts after federal aid for many companies expired last month.

For some area graduates, finding work outside their field is better than no work at all.

Jesus Mendoza, 23, graduated in the spring with a business administration-management degree from Chicago State University. He took a full-time job as a production line worker at car parts manufacturer Flex-N-Gate on the city’s Southeast Side that pays $15 an hour.

Jesus Mendoza, 23, graduated from Chicago State University in May with a business administration degree.
Jesus Mendoza, 23, graduated from Chicago State University in May with a business administration degree. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

Mendoza, who lives with his parents in Chicago’s East Side neighborhood, said he cut back on spending and going out to eat with friends in order to save money.

"I’ve been saving money to pay for bills,” he said.

Since graduating, Mendoza said he spent countless hours applying for jobs within his field but hasn’t had any luck. He owes about $30,000 in student loans, which he has to start paying next year.

The average student loan debt nationwide for 2019 graduates at public and private colleges was $28,950, according to an October report from The Institute for College Access & Success, an Oakland, California-based nonprofit that works to improve college affordability.

A federal moratorium on education debt payments was set to expire Sept. 30. In August, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to suspend federal student loan payments through Dec. 31 without penalty or accrual of interest.

The order excludes students whose loans are held by private companies and universities.

Many recent graduates are turning to their colleges' career counseling centers for help. But even after their resumes get spruced up and they hone their interview skills, it’s still hard to get a job offer.

Part of the issue is that employers are adding more criteria to job postings because they don’t have the time or resources to train early-career candidates, said Julia Pollak, a labor economist at job site ZipRecruiter.

“The amount of energy there is available to focus on training up young, new green employees aren’t there at the moment,” Pollak said.

The pandemic-related downturn also has caused some companies to cut jobs crucial to early career entrants, Pollak said.

Job postings for entry-level positions that require a college degree were down by 57% since mid-February nationwide, according to ZipRecruiter.

Postings for entry-level software engineers, which were in high demand before the pandemic, had one of the biggest declines in the past few months as technology companies scaled back their research and development departments, she said.

“When companies face a huge shock and need to become as efficient as possible, they are really just concerned with survival and generating revenue today, not with coming up with widgets for future demand,” she said.

Jobs in marketing, advertisement, and design also have been severely affected by the pandemic, she said.

Even those who went back to school to earn master’s degrees are having trouble tapping into higher-paying jobs.

Adriana Valdez, 29, finished her MBA program at DePaul University in August, hoping her new skills and degree would open more doors.

“I’ve been looking since the springtime, and it’s really tough as far as what’s out there,” Valdez said. “Sometimes it’s very common for you to hear nothing at all.”

Valdez, who graduated with a marketing degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2014, said she has been told by companies that she doesn’t have enough experience.

“How am I supposed to gain experience if I’m not given a chance to pursue an opportunity?” Valdez said.

Valdez, of Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, works as a full-time risk management officer for an insurance company, and her employer paid half of her tuition costs. But her company implemented a hiring freeze that made it challenging to seek a better-paying job and move up there, she said.

With her MBA, Valdez said she is looking at management and legal consulting roles that would pay about $10,000 to $20,000 more than her current role, which she needs to start paying off her student loans and move out of her parents' home.

As the first person in her family to earn an undergraduate and a master’s degree, there is some expectation from them for her to find a better-paying job, she said.

“It’s also the pressure of just wanting to make their sacrifices mean something,” she said.

For now, Zheng is attending virtual career fairs through UIC and applying for positions in fields like social work and child welfare services as he reconsiders his future in police work.

“I do have hope that I’ll find a job within this year, but it’s wishful thinking," he said.

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