As the first in her family to attend college in the United States, Mercy Mackenzie has dreamed of her college graduation since middle school.
“I’ve always tried to plan my future as thoroughly as possible,” said Mackenzie, a senior communication and social influence major. “I was told by so many people that getting my college degree would be the key to a successful career in a field that I enjoyed. Right now, though, my future feels more uncertain than ever.”
Mackenzie is one of the thousands of graduating seniors at Temple University and across the U.S. who face an uncertain future as they depart college with the end of the COVID-19 pandemic feeling in sight amid a national mass vaccination campaign. At the end of an unprecedented academic year, seniors are charting out their careers amid a global crisis that has made job opportunities more scarce.
Declining unemployment rates and a recently-passed $1.9 trillion federal economic relief package represent positive developments for an ailing U.S. economy. Yet young adults currently entering the workforce face a unique set of obstacles, as many employers continue to conduct hiring remotely and industries severely clenched by the pandemic continue to struggle.
Unemployment rates among youth ages 16 to 24 have lowered nationwide in recent months but still fall above pre-pandemic averages. In February, the U.S. youth unemployment rate was 10.9 percent, more than three percent higher than the 7.8 percent reported in February 2020 prior to the pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Despite cautious optimism surrounding a rebounding economy, the pandemic’s effect on the U.S. job market will continue to be felt for some time, said Kristen Gallo, executive director of the Career Center.
“With the current state of the U.S. job market, especially within hard-hit industries, college graduates will need to adapt their skillsets towards industries that are actively hiring,” Gallo said.
Difficulty finding employment and the fatigue of everyday life during a pandemic has taken its toll on the mental health of seniors like Mackenzie, leaving many of them feeling isolated and unsure about their path forward.
“At a time when I should be feeling really excited about the future, I’m mainly feeling anxious and lost,” Mackenzie said.
THE MENTAL HEALTH TOLL
An August 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 75 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed between June 24 through 30, 2020, reported suffering from at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, like anxiety and depression.
Jeffrey Mitchell, a senior risk management and insurance major, said his concern for the safety of his mother, who works as a nurse in an emergency room, has been a major source of stress and anxiety during the last year.
“It’s gotten a bit better, but I remember a several-week period when the ER my mom works at was completely filled to capacity with COVID patients,” Mitchell said. “It was really terrifying and just added to the stress I was already feeling about school and applying to jobs.”
Deborah Davis, a senior psychology major, is taking 17 credits this semester to qualify for graduation this spring. Her classwork, on top of her part-time restaurant job and applying to law school, has left her emotionally and physically drained.
“Most days I start work at 8 a.m., get home by 6 p.m., and then do school work till around 1 or 2 a.m.,” Davis said. “Everything with COVID, plus just being so overextended has definitely pushed me to my emotional breaking point a few times this semester.”
Seniors are also grappling with feelings of isolation and loneliness as classes remain remote and university-sponsored social events are canceled or hosted virtually.
Some COVID-19 city and state restrictions have been lifted in recent weeks, but many COVID-19 restrictions on in-person indoor capacity limits in city businesses and gatherings have remained in place during the 2020-21 academic year.
Temple restricted student organizations from meeting in person at the Howard Gittis Student Center this academic year, making it more difficult for students to interact socially, The Temple News reported.
“I feel cheated out of my senior year,” Davis said. “A lot of the things I was looking forward to this spring, like going to Temple’s Senior Brunch and being able to bond with fellow seniors and people in my major, just haven’t been possible.”
A NEW HIRING LANDSCAPE
The COVID-19 pandemic led to a sharp increase in unemployment rates in the U.S., and by June 2020, the U.S. officially entered a recession, according to the Brookings Institute.
The economic downturn caused by the pandemic forced many companies to lay off employees and enact hiring freezes, a practice that has continued in many industries through Spring 2021, Gallo said.
A recent report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers projects that post-graduation hiring rates for the class of 2021 are expected to remain at the same level seen for the class of 2020, despite recent signs of economic recovery, Gallo added.
Olivia Dan, a senior tourism and hospitality management major, said she feels extremely lucky to have a job lined up after graduation at a catering company located in Radnor, Pennsylvania.
“I’ve seen many of my peers in [the School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management] struggle to find employment in our industry, so I feel really blessed to have this opportunity,” Dan said.
Mitchell applied to more than 25 jobs and completed nearly a dozen interviews before he was able to find a post-graduation job as an employee benefits consultant.
“I think of interviewing as one of my strengths, but they were difficult for me in the virtual environment,” Mitchell said. “I find I’m much more anxious before a Zoom interview and find it harder to communicate what I bring to the table to potential employers.”
Gallo observed how the shift toward virtual hiring practices has been one of the most difficult adjustments for students to make while navigating the pandemic job market.
“It requires an entirely new skill set,” Gallo said. “Even for those who do feel comfortable in an interview setting, which most don’t, the process of talking to a potential employer through a computer screen while sitting in your bedroom is a completely new experience for most students.”
Early during her time at Temple, Mackenzie decided she wanted to work abroad in either Germany or France after graduation, a dream she decided to postpone when the logistics of global travel and finding a job became too complicated due to the pandemic.
“It really forced me to change my entire strategy,” Mackenzie said. “Instead of looking abroad, I had to come around to the idea of being in Philly, or possibly back home, which was never something I thought would happen.”
Mackenzie now plans to move back in with her mother in Allentown, Pennsylvania, for the foreseeable future after she graduates this spring. Last week, Mackenzie received news that she’d been hired by an Allentown-based non-profit organization working to address mental health problems among elementary school-aged children.
“It’s in no way where I thought I would be or what I want to be doing exactly, but at least I can breathe a sigh of relief knowing I have something,” Mackenzie added.
Virginia Sapp, a senior art history major, has also adapted her post-graduation plans and is considering applying to graduate school if she is unable to find a job in the art history field.
“I’m trying to go with the flow, look at all my options and possibly apply to jobs in different fields than my major, like marketing,” Sapp added. “I’m not ruling out any options.”
Gallo said the best advice she could give departing seniors is to not be discouraged by rejection.
“The moment you stop applying, you stop networking and you stop putting yourself out there, you’ve pretty much given yourself a guarantee that nobody is going to find you,” Gallo said.
Temple’s 2021 commencement day will take place on or around May 6 and consist of smaller ceremonies hosted by the university’s individual schools and colleges. Temple has yet to announce whether it will permit in-person attendance for these events, The Temple News reported.
“Having an in-person graduation ceremony would give a sense of closure to my college experience,” Davis said. “But as with everything this year, I’m not holding my breath. If I’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that closure is not something you’re ever really guaranteed to get.”
But for other seniors like Mitchell, the existence of an in-person graduation ceremony with guest attendance is relatively unimportant.
“Were we not in a pandemic, I might be more excited for graduation,” Mitchell said. “But at this point, I’m honestly just ready to move on to the next chapter of my life, ceremony or not.”