What's next?: Seniors navigate post-COVID-19 job market

 Forty job applications and two interviews later, Emerson Williams is unsure what he will do after graduation. 

COVID-19 upended the job market, specifically impacting the travel industry, entertainment and any field that requires face-to-face interaction. Record-level unemployment has college students struggling more than usual to find a job.  

“[The job search] has not been very fruitful,” Williams said. “I’ve been applying a lot. I went to the career fair and met people and contacts. I went through everything and got a couple interviews, and they didn’t really go anywhere.”

Williams will graduate with a 3.6 GPA in aerospace and mechanical engineering from Oklahoma State on May 8. After his graduation, graduate school is Williams’ worst-case scenario.

“There’s a group of nine of us who had a semester project last year,” Williams said. “We all keep in touch and the only person with a job has a dad who works [at the company]… Of the nine of us, more than half are going back to OSU for graduate school.”

The move to apply for graduate school is increasingly common among seniors. From the April 17, 2020 to April 16, of 2021, OSU saw a 16% increase in students applying to graduate programs, according to Office of Institutional and Analytics. The number of students admitted to OSU’s graduate school rose from 1,321 to 1,599, a 21% increase. 

Breanna Gallagher, a career consultant for the university, noticed this increase and said students should have several plans for after graduation in case one doesn’t work out.

“With graduate school admissions, there are more and more fish in that pool,” Gallagher said. “It depends on the program and the school you are applying to, but sometimes it is really hard to get into [graduate school] right now because there are so many people trying to get in.”

The College of Arts and Sciences Career Services hosted an event on April 15to help students whose plans were disrupted because of COVID-19. Collin O’Leary, a career consultant for the college, led the talk on Zoom. The event included tools to handle rejection, reapply for graduate school and improve resumes. 

The rise in graduate school applications is precedented. O’Leary said after the 2008 recession, more students decided to go to graduate school to become more competitive and to wait out the crisis, much like students are doing now. 

“I remember saying all the time, ‘We’ll be back to normal in like two weeks,’” O’Leary said. “That was a year and a half ago. So, from there, I think a lot of students were just stuck and not wanting to make a decision because they weren’t sure what was going to happen in the world. I think now that we have lived with it and adjusted to this new world we live in, I see a lot of students getting an earlier start, which is smart.”

O’Leary graduated from OSU and said he can’t imagine being in the shoes of current graduating students. He said the students who graduated in the spring of 2020 had it the worst, but the job market is slowly improving.

“If you are a junior, I want you looking at jobs right now,” O’Leary said. “If you are a senior getting ready to graduate, definitely get in with Career Services. We want to do everything we can to really boost your chances of getting positions, getting into graduate school, whatever it is… Start early, find that support system and then just try to keep your head up.”

Although graduate school can be a creative way to improve a student’s chances at finding employment, more students get rejected than get accepted. When graduate school isn’t an option, many students have to move back home as they wait to find a job or reapply for next semester. 

Theater senior Evan Houck is one of many graduates planning to move back home. Live performance, Houck’s focus, has taken a big hit because of the pandemic. He said he has hope live performance will return to pre-COVID-19 levels, but it will take time.

“It will be difficult to move back home, but that is not to say it will be a big problem for me,” Houck said. “It will take some time to get used to the differences in college culture and my parent's culture, but I think in the end it is worth it. I hope it goes smoothly because I would really like to work out of the Tulsa area for around six months. I look at it as being a cheap and affordable option when comparing it to moving into my own apartment after graduation.”

Many students don’t have the option to move back home because of familial strife, financial issues or proximity to job opportunities. Raffi Demirjian, a double major in marketing and sports management, said he can’t move home to rural Southern California because the area has limited job opportunities.

With no desire to go to graduate school or to move home with his parents, Demirjian said getting a job is his only option. He has driven as far as Dallas for interviews with little success. 

“We as students are not looking for pity or handouts or freebies,” Demirjian said. “We are looking for opportunities to not only grow ourselves professionally and personally, but to prove ourselves as young men and women ready to positively impact society.” 

Through his job search, Demirjian noticed there are two large groups of people looking for work, recent college graduates and people who have experience and were laid off because of the coronavirus pandemic. He said it seems companies are more inclined to hire those with experience because the company won’t have to spend as much time training. Demirjian said he is marketing himself wherever he can, even plugging himself in the interview for this article. 

“If anyone sees this who is hiring for an entry-level corporate marketing role or works in professional or collegiate sports, I would be happy to learn more about your company and get to know you,” Demirjian said.

Williams, Houck and Demirjian took different approaches in navigating the post-COVID-19 job market, but they each expressed hope for their careers. Houck said venues being closed has been the toughest aspect of finding a job in live performance, but the film industry is starting back up, which gives him more opportunities. 

“I have hope for the future in my field of study,” Houck said. “I believe people around the world will soon be tired of virtual entertainment and I hope live entertainment comes back better than ever.”

Having worked with students going into the job market long before the pandemic began, Gallagher said graduating from college and figuring out what is next is always tough for students, but the pandemic has made the transition more complicated. 

Career Services are available to students for a year after they graduate. Students can also join the OSU Student Alumni Association to have access to career services for life, with memberships starting at about $600. Gallagher encouraged students to use the resources available to them as long as they can. 

“Hang in there,” Gallagher said. “No matter who you are, job searching is hard and it sucks.”

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