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College grads: Navigating the job market during coronavirus

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As if missing out on traditional graduation ceremonies because of the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t disappointing enough, the 1.3 million students graduating from a two-year or four-year college in the United States this year are entering a job market with nearly 15% unemployment, according to figures released May 8 by the Labor Department.

Some job offers have been rescinded or pushed back, and internships have been canceled or changed, forcing college graduates to rethink their plans. Others might be thinking of going to graduate school to wait things out until the economy improves. What is the best course of action? Here are some things to consider.

Where can I go for help?

If you haven’t already contacted your college’s career services department, do so now. Also, reach out to alumni groups, so you can meet fellow graduates in your area and network. “Then look at your parents’ friends and your friends’ parents. Look at job boards and ads, and go to staffing companies. This is your first line of entry,” Tom Gimbel, CEO of staffing and recruiting firm LaSalle Network, tells Fast Company.

What should I be doing online (and offline)?

If you don’t already have a LinkedIn profile, set one up and start using it. New graduates “can utilize that for networking,” Stephanie Kit, director of the Center for Career Development at the University of Tennessee, tells WBIR in Knoxville, Tenn.

Online networking and job fairs are crucial as well, according to Indeed. With many workplaces still closed, try looking for remote work -- you may have an edge because you’ve already had experience with distance learning this past semester, according to Caitlin Proctor of Zipjob.

As a member of Generation Z, you may not be as used to talking on the telephone, but many employers will still want to call regarding potential jobs, so you should practice phone conversation skills through role-playing, Jack Kelly writes in Forbes. He also recommends cleaning up your social media profiles and online footprint so employers won’t find anything potentially objectionable.

Above all, be persistent and patient. Members of the graduating class of 2020 had planned to apply to 10 jobs on average before the coronavirus outbreak, and now they expect to apply to more than 20, according to an iCIMS report mentioned in Fast Company. As University of Houston Assistant Dean Jamie Belinne says to KTRK, “[Jobs] are more competitive and it's taking longer to get them, but the people who are out there actively looking are the ones who are going to get it.”

Should I take a job that’s not in my intended field?

“To improve your chances of securing a position, you’ll have to look at opportunities you may not have considered in the past,” Brian Martucci of the personal finance site Money Crashers tells Fast Company. That could mean considering “an essential field in addition to your chosen one, such as infrastructure work, transportation, and IT,” he says.

The pandemic has created one opportunity: Health departments nationwide will need to hire between 100,000 and 300,000 contact tracers to help prevent the spread of the virus. Contact tracers reach out to people who have tested positive for the coronavirus, track everyone they’ve been in contact with and then notify those people so they can self-quarantine.

An interest in health care helps, but experts say a medical background isn’t required, only the ability to communicate well, engender trust and show empathy. “Essentially, if you are comfortable talking to people, answering questions and gathering information, you can do it,” Christiana Coyle of the NYU School of Global Public Health tells CBS News. Johns Hopkins University has even made a free class available to train people.

If you want something part-time, entry-level positions are available in general retail and delivery. They can be a good way to make money while you search for something more permanent. “The retailers that are open — like supermarkets and hardware stores — are in need of more staff to manage long lines and to replace those who can’t or won’t work due to health concerns,” CareerBuilder CEO Irina Novoselsky tells CNBC.

Another possibility is online baby-sitting and tutoring. With many summer camps canceled, parents will be looking for people to spend time with their kids virtually, and new college graduates could be well-positioned to tutor middle- and high-school students in advanced subjects.

Is graduate school worth it?

There are pros and cons to attending graduate school now. “Staying in school will make graduating during a recession less likely and could help graduates land a higher-paying job later on,” write economists Celeste Carruthers, Larry Kessler and Marianne Wanamaker of the University of Tennessee.

However, higher pay isn’t a given: Quartz reporter Sarah Todd went to grad school for English literature during the Great Recession of 2007-09, and she writes, “Ultimately, I wound up with $30,000 of student-loan debt and a degree that was unrelated to the career I did want to pursue.”

Todd recommends going only if you can finish with little or no debt, if it’s required for your chosen career, if you’re sure it will increase your earning power or if you are “independently wealthy, footloose, fancy-free, and probably drinking a martini right now.”

It’s worth noting that many people who are in graduate school or receiving graduate degrees this year are also struggling with the tough job market and other difficulties caused by the coronavirus, and many colleges are experiencing lower enrollment in graduate programs.

What else should I be doing?

Job searching can feel like an all-consuming task, so it’s important to balance it with other activities. If you’re healthy, try volunteering for an organization like Meals on Wheels that usually relies heavily on older volunteers. See if there are any grassroots efforts that have sprung up in your community to help people in need during this time, such as the Arlington Community Corps in Virginia. Take care of your physical and mental health as well through regular exercise and counseling if necessary.

Above all, take this as an opportunity to learn resilience during a difficult time. Hopefully someday you can look back, gainfully employed, and be proud of how you handled it.

If you found this look into navigating the post-coronavirus job market useful, you can sign up for SmartBrief on Your Career to receive more career-focused insights. For even more in-depth news coverage, you can sign up for any of SmartBrief’s 275+ free newsletters.

Catherine Guiles is a copy editor/writer at SmartBrief. Connect with her on LinkedIn.