ORRVILLE — Mary Kate Waggoner is one of millions of college students who will graduate in the coming months.
Typically, that’s something to celebrate.
But the 21-year-old Akron resident, who studies social work at the University of Akron’s Wayne College in Orrville, is also about to graduate in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I feel like I’m more of an optimist in this situation, but it would be weird if I wasn’t feeling anxious,” she said. “In some ways, I’m excited to enter the job market to help people in crisis. At the same time, there is a level of concern that I’m not going to get the job that I want.”
College seniors — already uneasy after being forced to leave their campuses early and switch to remote learning — are now facing skyrocketing unemployment and a virus that just keeps on impacting the economy.
Some are seeing job interviews canceled. Others are having internships postponed. And although the full impact of the coronavirus on the job market isn’t yet clear, experts say this could become the worst hiring season for new college graduates since the Great Recession.
The Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based National Association of Colleges and Employers, which surveys employers and colleges, found that 15% of companies are cutting back on their recruiting and 18% are undecided about hiring new workers.
Sixty-one percent of employers said they weren’t revoking job offers, but 23% were considering it.
Meanwhile, nearly 37% of employers reduced the length of internships by delaying start dates, and almost 18% of employers reduced the number of interns they were bringing on board.
Some major companies, especially in hospitality and tourism, are suspending internship programs, postponing start dates or moving online, said Kristin Williams, executive director of career exploration and development at Kent State University.
Some students and graduates received news in mid-March from Walt Disney Co. that their internship program, originally scheduled to wrap up in August, was over and they had less than a week to move out of Disney housing.
“As the students are discovering this change, we’re telling them to be flexible,” Williams said. “At least with internships, ‘adaptability’ is a word we’re hearing a lot.”
Waggoner has worked as an intern with the Battered Women’s Shelter and Rape Crisis Center of Medina and Summit Counties.
Her assignments and meetings have moved online due to the coronavirus. She misses working in the field and interacting with people one-on-one.
“I have made really good connections there. I built good relationships. I would love to work there. The only thing that would hold me back is …,” she said, but then her voice trailed off.
Waggoner has been looking at social work job postings, but she worries employers may cancel interviews or won’t hire due to the financial strains of the coronavirus.
She is spending her time trying to finish classes strong and working as a grocery delivery driver for Instacart, a job she’s had only for a few weeks. She scrambled to find some source of income after Gov. Mike DeWine ordered restaurants to close and she got laid off from her job as a server at Bomba in Fairlawn.
Job postings for warehouse and grocery workers are increasing, said Andrea Koncz, research manager at NACE.
But those aren’t always first on a college student’s list of potential jobs, especially after spending several years working toward a degree. There is also higher demand for health care professionals and tech companies now, Williams said.
Some college career centers — 99% of which are continuing to connect with students virtually, according to NACE — are telling students to let go of the “dream job” they’ve been sculpting in their heads, at least for now, and shift their focus toward the multiple pathways ahead of them.
“We’re telling them to think about bringing all of their abilities and skill sets to an industry they might not have imagined,” Williams said.
And when obstacles get in the way, like canceled and altered internships, she said schools should be leaning into faculty and alumni to help create meaningful experiences for students that won’t hold them back from graduating.
Kent State, like other schools across the state, is continuing to offer services like resume reviews, appointments and drop-in hours by phone and online “in an attempt to make sure students have the same opportunities they would have had on campus,” Williams said.
The university is also releasing two-minute videos on topics like how to use LinkedIn and connecting with employer partners to take on topics like navigating an online interview, which is being shared on social media. Kent State’s Education Employment Week, happening this week, is still on, but virtually.
Students will have interviews with school districts nationwide, and new districts have taken interest in participating, Williams said, because they don’t have to be there in-person.
Wayne College, which has fewer students and a smaller campus, is directing students to the University of Akron’s Career Services. The Wayne County Career Expo, scheduled for April 24, was postponed.
Helen Francis, a College of Wooster senior studying early childhood education and psychology, is counting down the days until August, when she can start her new job as a fourth-grade teacher at The Galloway School in Atlanta.
In the meantime, she is a student teacher at Wooster City Schools. Francis meets online with her fourth-grade students every morning and afternoon, and is usually recording lessons between meetings from her home in Atlanta. It was difficult to leave her students so abruptly.
“I’m also trying to look for a job right now because in my household, there’s only one person working,” she said. “With everyone back home, it’s putting a strain on us financially.”
Last week, she had an interview with supermarket chain Publix in hopes of securing a temporary job that could last through the summer in case her month-long paid internship at The Schenck School, a private school for dyslexic children, gets canceled.
“I don’t like the uncertainty of everything surrounding COVID-19 right now,” Francis, 22, said. “I don’t do well with that. Because there’s no definite date that this is going to be over, I’m still wrapped up in this idea that, ‘Oh my gosh, this is never going to end,’ when in reality, it will at some point. But my anxiety just doesn’t seem to be going away. Going into May and into the summer, I definitely see myself continuing to hold on to that anxiety.”
Francis can’t think of any student whose life hasn’t been disrupted by the coronavirus.
“Seniors feel cheated out of their last semester,” she said, adding that it can be difficult to apply for jobs while carrying so many emotions around.
Williams recalled 2009 when she began with career services during “what felt like one of the heaviest times of the recession.”
“Jobs were scarce,” she said. “But we always encouraged students to apply because if you don’t, nothing will happen. And little lights came from those tunnels. … None of us know what’s going to happen on the other side of this, so keep moving, even when you’re frustrated.”