Building a career on uneven ground

Tall buildings in Boston's Back Bay

Tall buildings in Boston's Back BayBy Stephanie Iancu

For the classes of 2020 through 2023, attending college under pandemic restrictions was hard enough. Now recent graduates are finding that applying for jobs post-pandemic creates a whole new set of challenges. 

With the still palpable uncertainty of the current job market, many firms are still choosing not to offer internships or open entry-level positions, sometimes even laying off their most junior employees. For students from lower-income households, this has proven to be a significant source of anxiety as every month without a paycheck is a month of racking up additional debt.

Northeastern University’s Employer Engagement and Career Design Center — which helps connect students with internships and entry-level employment — hemorrhaged a large number of opportunities from 2020 through today. This forced university staff to mine for possible openings and contact employers themselves instead of waiting for them to reach out, which had been the case in the past.

“One of the ways that we can tell what’s going to be happening in the economy before it happens is by sheer numbers of jobs that come through our center and that’s a statistic that we track from year to year,” said Sumana Northover, director of talent engagement at Northeastern’s employment center.

“Going into 2019, we could tell there was going to be a significant decrease, so we kind of had that heads up. But then obviously COVID-19 hit, and then whatever natural decrease would have happened, it just blew it out of the water.”

However, things seem to be looking up for the class of 2023. According to the 2023 edition of the annual Job Outlook Report conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Universities, employers plan to hire 14.7% more new graduates from the Class of 2023 than they did from the Class of 2022. Many of those surveyed also rated the current entry-level job market as very good to excellent for both interns and full-time hires.

US unemployment rate for recent graduates (all sectors)
The unemployment rate for recent graduates has been steadily decreasing since 2020. Data source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Data visualization: Stephanie Iancu

Recent graduate unemployment is also bouncing back from the highs hit during the pandemic with rates in early 2023 almost being back to pre-pandemic levels.

The way college students who have graduated or are about to seek out these jobs, however, has changed. Many on-campus networking events that used to be in-person also moved to the virtual space during the pandemic and have remained that way — be it because college administrations have decided so or because employers no longer wish to expand the resources to send representatives to career fairs. Many students have found this new format less fruitful when it comes to connecting with employers and expanding their professional network and have been weary of attending them.

“Let’s say they did go to one of these virtual sessions, and they met with an employer, and they sent their resume to some portal,” said Northover. “Many of them never heard back.”

Northover said that the most important thing that she and her talent engagement team can do is not only make those connections but also make them in a meaningful way so that students and employers want to build on that initial relationship. “I think that that’s the thing that we couldn’t really do during the pandemic,” she said. 

She also said that even if certain sectors or companies were now recovering and offering abundant job opportunities, this did not mean that they were making sure to build a diverse workforce with workers of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and gender identities. She expressed concern that the recent Supreme Court decision on Affirmative Action could potentially further exacerbate this lack of diversity.

“My hope is that employers continue pushing for that diversity, because at the end of the day, and there’s actual hardcore data to support this, diverse teams perform better, and they make more money,” she said.

For international students, the stakes are even higher. In order to remain in the United States and extend their students visas for an additional year under what is known as an Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, students must find jobs that start practically the moment they graduate as OPT does not allow for more than 60 days of total unemployment throughout the year.

“Being an international student, I’m particularly worried about job opportunities and also the economic factor of living here in the United States,” said Andrés Hernandez, a sports communications graduate student at Emerson College who is originally from Colombia.

“I feel opportunities for international students are a bit more limited in the country and while all of that job search is ongoing, trying to pay housing and other expenses will be challenging.”

Many international students come to the United States not only for the quality of education but also for the professional opportunities it offers. Not having access to these opportunities or being overlooked by hiring managers because of their visa status has therefore been a recurrent cause of frustration for many.

“Finding the job as every international student who comes here, we just want to get our money’s worth, because we invested so much money and time and emotions into it, like being away from home,” said Netanya Pereira, a Northeastern University environmental policy student who moved to the US from India.

“That’s my primary concern; getting the job that I’ve always wanted to get, because I know it exists, but the whole visa situation is complicated.”

For U.S. students, opportunities may not be lacking, but there is a fear that entering and adjusting to the 9-to-5 corporate world may prove tougher than expected because it could mean having to compromise on their aspirations or make difficult lifestyle adjustments.

“I have 5 or 6 different jobs lined up but it’s really about deciding how I want to go about it and what will make me the happiest,” said Dante Angelucci, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business management from Endicott College in 2023.

“I could basically do another four years of schooling but get bad pay during that time and work myself like a dog until I’m 26 and then start my own company, or work hard for someone else with a lesser chance for me to be a business owner. I’m worried about burning myself out too young and not accomplishing some of my goals and dreams because of that.”

At a time when transparency about working conditions has become more common thanks to social media and employer rating websites such as Glassdoor, many young workers are standing up for themselves and demanding higher pay, additional benefits, and a better work-life balance. But some sectors seem to be moving faster than others. Entry-level employees in sectors such as tech and finance are still expected to work long weeks and blur the boundaries between their work and personal lives to prove their commitment to the company.

In the face of these unappealing conditions, many college graduates who want more control over their careers and lifestyle are increasingly betting on themselves and turning towards starting their own businesses, working as consultants, or going freelance.

“People are more aware of work-life balance and are looking for roles that have a healthier version of it, and they’re less willing to give everything, said Tamar Gaffin-Cahn, assistant director of graduate student career services at Emerson College. “They are saying ‘Hey, I need my own time.’”

“There’s this balance of kind of where what age you were and where you were developmentally when the pandemic hit, that determines if you might need a little bit more control, or you might need a little bit more flexibility,” she said

“I would have a conversation with the student or the individual,” said Gaffin-Cahn. “We want to figure out what are your skills? What spaces do you like being in? And then how can you build a career that satisfies what you’re looking for?”

Gaffin-Cahn said that some of the graduate students she works with would still rather have the stability that comes with being employed full-time by a corporation or organization, but often express that they want to be able to still work with some of the accommodations that were offered to employees during the pandemic, such as more lenient schedules and the possibility of working remotely or on a hybrid schedule.

A 2023 study on network trends conducted by the job search platform Handshake has revealed that many members of the Class of 2023 are actually less focused on landing jobs with big-name companies and are instead open to jobs in a wider range of industries and locations as long as the position is stable and pays well enough. Gaffin-Cahn said that finding which path makes the most sense comes down to what matters most to each student and what their best assets are as each type of work requires its own specific strengths.

“There are skills that are very valuable for both,” she said.

About Stephanie Iancu 4 Articles
Stephanie Iancu was born in London but grew up in Lausanne, Switzerland. She has a bachelor’s degree in international relations and moved to Boston in 2022 to pursue a master’s degree in journalism. After graduating, she aspires to work as a reporter for a newspaper or magazine and has a strong interest in politics, culture, and gender.