Students who entered the job market during the pandemic are unhirable
“Companies need you more than ever before. Check out all the companies hiring right now. Apply today!”
Sound familiar? This is a headline pulled from Glassdoor’s weekly newsletter. I receive emails with taglines of this nature every week—and they work. Always, my optimism falls for this clickbait. I search the criteria, apply for a job, and await the automated response regrettably informing me that said company has “unfortunately moved forward with other candidates.”
While the pandemic has forced many employers to expand their applicant pools by allowing for remote work, the qualifications for these hiring roles seem unclear or unattainable. If companies so desperately need qualified, twenty-something graduates like myself, why is it so hard to start a sustainable career?
Students are finding themselves unhirable
Like me, Hyde Ketterman graduated top of his class with high hopes of landing a job with a liveable wage. With a Bachelor’s degree in public relations from Boston University, he expected to find opportunities in the growing pool of online media companies. Since graduating, Ketterman continues to work at Panera Bread, the same job he relied on to make ends meet while obtaining his degree.
“I didn’t get any help paying for college. I relied completely on financial aid, private loans, and my minimum wage job to make ends meet. How could I possibly make time for an unpaid internship? I wouldn’t have been able to eat.”
It’s no secret that many college students rely on multiple, low-wage jobs to keep them afloat during their studies and in the months following graduation. Students work hard: sacrificing sleep, social lives, and general well-being so they can break free from low-wage, hourly work and earn a salary doing something they earned a degree in. Ketterman took a risk in relying on student loans to help him pay for school.
“Now I’m spending eight hours at the cash register. I come home to my parent’s house because I obviously can’t afford rent, and I spend the rest of the day applying for jobs. Most of these so-called ‘entry-level’ jobs ask you for two to three years of related experience. How is that entry-level?”
Ketterman is not alone in this struggle. More than ever, recent graduates have become hobbled by debt they can’t pay back. Employers demand a wealth of experience to get a foot in the door, and most students cannot afford to take the unpaid opportunities that would provide them with this experience. On top of this, we underemployed, twenty-somethings now have to reckon with a post-pandemic job market in which we struggle to find consistent 20-hour work weeks.
COVID-19 has only made things harder
Before COVID-19 hit, at least 43 percent of college graduates were underemployed—employed in jobs that do not require a college degree—in their first job out of school. Competition in the job market is at an all-time high as more students plan to join the workforce, with degrees in hand, in 2022.
The most prestigious universities—which charge top dollar—entice students with the promise of a diploma sure to land them jobs in their field of study. However, corporate jobs—the ones students need in order to pay off their hefty student loan debt—have been highly competitive even before the pandemic began. On average every corporate job opening attracts 250 resumes, but only four to six of these candidates are interviewed, and only one will get the job.
“It’s the greatest hypocrisy,” says Alexandra Bushell, a UC Los Angeles graduate. “After investing thousands of hours and thousands of dollars into your education, you would hope to land a moderately paying wage within a company.”
As Bushell notes, recent graduates quickly realize the severity of their financial hardship when confronting their debt. Private student loan interest rates can go up to 14.99 percent, which is incredibly high, especially when compared to the average mortgage interest rate, 2.72 percent, an investment that does not require 3-5 years of full-time studying.
“I have a degree in engineering but COVID-19 has hobbled the job market. It feels like we’re frozen in time,” explains Bushell. “As of now, I’m working as a secretary at a legal firm just to cover my basic needs and it is by large and far not what I pictured myself doing. But we have to adjust our expectations. College was never a guarantee for success I guess.”
As of 2019, at least 41 percent of recent graduates were unemployed as they now face the “worst job markets since the Great Depression.” How can you get experience without any prior experience? Now, given the global pandemic, can young people even hope for unpaid internships and learning roles?
“We didn’t slave away, sacrifice our social life to be baristas,” retorts Olivia Collins, who graduated top of her class and a year early to boot. “I graduated in 2019, lined up an internship, and then BAM! COVID-19 broke out everywhere and my role was cut.”
Collins is a UC Berkeley alumni and, since losing her internship, she has continued working at PetSmart for the last year. “Working at PetSmart isn’t a terrible job. I love animals and helping others, but I want to work in book publishing,” she says.
“The thing is, when I finish up a long day of standing on my feet, the only stamina I have leftover goes to applying for jobs within this field.” Like Ketterman and others, Collins faces an uphill battle searching for her dream job—or any job that pays a liveable wage for that matter.
A Sisyphus plight with no resolve
We’ve all heard the expression: “applying for work is a full-time job.” And that’s the truth. Employers expect potential candidates to write resumes and cover letters that engage in a specific conversation with their posted job listing. In 2016 Forbes suggested that the recently unemployed should dedicate 30-40 hours a week searching for new opportunities while those who have work full-time jobs only need to dedicate 8-10 hours per week.
Can we actually expect recent graduates working eight hours a day in minimum wage jobs to crank out high-quality cover letters for an additional 10 hours?
And during the pandemic, the unemployment rate reached 9.8 percent, 6.1 percent of the population. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated at least 3.7 percent of college graduates are unemployed as of April 2021.
I have spent several months interviewing recent graduates like myself. We face the impossible choice between abandoning our dream of finding meaningful, well-paid work or basic survival. The scope of the job market, desirable candidate qualities, and the amount of time needed to invest in job applications can be disheartening.
How many cover letters do we expect the Collins’ and Kettermans of the world to churn out? Can we expect them to come up with creative, well-researched, and polished applications in the volume required to have any hope of breaking into their respective industries?
And do we stand a chance given that most job applications are filtered through resume-reading robots specifically designed to cut through at least 75 percent of the applicant pool?
As of 2019, up to 99 percent of Fortune 500 companies admitted to relying on applicant tracking systems (ATS), to sift through high volumes of applications. ATS relies on filters to sort applicants into easy-to-read data categories like educational background and relevant work experience. These filters are customized by each company but generally are set to mine for keywords and company-specific terminology.
As a result, many applications fall through the cracks―especially if the software finds the resumé’s data hard to read. If Forbes suggests that those looking for more work or better opportunities should spend at least eight extra hours a week applying for jobs, how many of these hours are wasted hurling applications into a tracking system designed to dismiss us?
“I want to stay hopeful and believe it’s a numbers game; if I just keep applying, something will come through,” Ketterman worries, “but I feel like I’m pushing a boulder up a hill, maybe I should spend my free time after work at another job, at least then I could save a little more money.”
Who’s getting these jobs?
With so many applicants desiring a stable job that promises equity, diversity, and innovation, who are the applicants obtaining these positions? Most of the time, it’s biased.
Allie Pearelsen, who graduated from honors society with an English degree, has been unable to find a job for over a year. Whereas her partner, a white cis male with an arts degree, has a six-figure salary. It helps that he was not burdened with debt and was blessed with considerable family connections who were able to help him secure key internships, which eventually landed him his permanent role.
Although higher education has become more accessible to all—despite its ever-increasing price tag—Black and Latinx applicants still make less and land fewer opportunities than their white counterparts, regardless of their education.
Georgetown University published a detailed study in 2019 which found that Black and Latinx employees are consistently underrepresented in “good jobs,” defined as those that pay at least $35,000 annually for ages 25-44 and at least $45,000 for ages 45-64. Moreover, people of color can expect to make $10,000 less annually than white people while also facing discrimination in the application process as well.
It seems the odds are stacked against us. We, recent graduates, are facing a post-pandemic job market, unaffordable higher education, applicant tracking software, and ongoing socio-economic discrimination. Despite the fact that we, the “unhirables,” are very much hireable.
We just haven’t found the right job yet.