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'Don't lose hope': advice for the class of 2020 from those who graduated into the Great Recession

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These college seniors had job offers lined up–then the pandemic hit

College students today have been dealt a difficult hand. The class of COVID-19 has been forced to cut their college careers short, give up a traditional graduation ceremony and begin their professional careers during the most hostile labor market since the Great Depression. 

Many of these students have had their job offers rescinded, and are looking to those who graduated during the previous economic downturn, the Great Recession, for guidance and inspiration. 

"Economists that have looked into this carefully all agree that there are effects that persist for a long time, if not permanently, for people who graduate and come into the job market around the time of a deep recession," says Gary Burtless, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Even after the recovery occurs, these generations often are scarred by having employment rates that are one to two percentage points lower than those of generations that graduated school in a healthier job market."

Workers who graduate into a recession also report lower earnings, higher levels of student debt, and worse professional prospects.   

CNBC Make It spoke with dozens of college graduates as well as with workers who graduated during the Great Recession to hear what advice they have for 2020's graduating class. 

Comparing the Great Recession to now

While workers who graduated into the Great Recession may offer the closest comparison for today's young people, there are still significant differences in the magnitude of the challenges they face, says Burtless. 

"This is much worse than the Great Recession. Over the entire Great Recession, I think maybe 8.5, 9 million jobs were lost over the course of a 5-year period. Between February and April, the United States lost 21.5 million payroll jobs," he explains. "And so now, people graduating this spring are going to face the worst job market in the entire post-depression history."

Since March, 38.6 million Americans have lost their jobs and in April, the unemployment rate was 14.7%

It will take years to track the long-term impacts on today's graduates, but there is one similarity these two unlucky generations already share: moving back home. 

"There was a concept that sociologists were talking about a decade or so ago called 'failure to launch,' says Burtless. "People were staying in their parents' households longer or returning to their parents' households, they were delaying when they got married, they were delaying the first birth of children, and many markers of becoming an adult: buying your first home and so forth."

Some recent graduates have already been forced to move back in with their families because they are unable to find full-time jobs. 

"I just turned 22. Living with my parents was not my idea of what my life would look like," says John Novakovich, who will graduate from Northwestern University on June 19th with a degree in economics. He was set to start his first post-grad job as an operations associate for Uber later that month but his offer was rescinded.

Here's the advice that professionals who graduated into the Great Recession have for people like Novakovich:

Lauren McGoodwin in 2009
Courtesy of Lauren McGoodwin

Take care of yourself and get specific about your skills

Lauren McGoodwin graduated in 2009 from the University of Oregon with a degree in education. She says her career center still remembers her because she eagerly took advantage of every service they offered, such as mock interviews and on-campus career fairs — and still graduated without a job. 

"When I graduated, I had zero job prospects. I had had about 10 campus interviews. Never got called back for any of them," says McGoodwin. "So I graduated and had to move back home with my mom."

Today, McGoodwin is the CEO and founder of Career Contessa, a career advice and job search site, and creator of The Salary Project, which helps workers compare their earnings to peers in their field.

Lauren McGoodwin today
Courtesy of Lauren McGoodwin

Her advice to recent graduates is "to take the time to feel your pain."

"I always encourage people to start with making sure they're taking care of their mental, emotional, physical health," she says. "It's OK to feel disappointed."

When young people are ready to jump into the job market, she says they should master a specific skill that will help them find a job they are excited about.   

"My best advice is to find out what companies are hiring and go where there is demand and spend any time you have right now filling your skills gaps," she says. "I wish that I had been more specific with my skill set. I was so general. I was always like, 'I have a good attitude, I'm a quick learner.'"

She continues, "I wish I could have I told myself, 'find something that you really enjoy and double down on it so that you're an expert."

Erin McCann in 2009
Courtesy of Erin McCann

Be patient and open-minded

Erin McCann graduated from the University of Southern California Law School in 2009. 

"When I started law school, the economy was really good and so I had expected and anticipated that I would have a high-paying job as a lawyer. Graduating with a lot of law school debt and not having any income was pretty scary," she says. "I didn't have a job when I graduated law school and a lot of my friends that had offers, they'd been revoked."

McCann is now a recruiting manager for staffing agency Robert Half. Her advice to students graduating right now is to "be gentle with yourself. It's not your fault that this happened."

Erin McCann at her first court appearance in 2010
Courtesy of Erin McCann

When McCann graduated and passed the bar, she also had a hard time finding a job. The first opportunity she landed was working for a divorce attorney. She took the job even though she had never planned on practicing that kind of law. 

"You're going to need to be flexible in terms of what kind of job that you take," she says, adding that being open to a wide range of opportunities can have some surprising benefits.

"I think that graduating during a down economy did give me some skills that I otherwise might not have had in my toolbox. And it's not just me. When I look at our class, I look at the hustle that a lot of people put into creating their own firm or starting in a practice area that they may not otherwise have considered," she says. "Be flexible and open-minded so that you have opportunities that could lead to other opportunities down the road."

Nirav Patel in 2009
Courtesy of Nirav Patel

Take on a personal project

Nirav Patel graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in computer engineering in 2009. While he faced a similar fate to those students who have been forced to move back home, his career path demonstrates what young people can do with their downtime. 

"I still didn't have a job at graduation. So like a lot of people, I moved into my parents' basement for a few months and kept applying and kept developing my skills and eventually managed to land a job at Apple," he says. 

Today, Patel is the founder of Framework, a company that aims to make consumer electronics repairable and upgradable. 

Nirav Patel today
Courtesy of Nirav Patel

"You should use all the spare time that you have to go and build things that you find personally interesting, that are relevant to the skills that you've developed in school that you want to apply going forward," advises Patel. "And it's useful because it helps you refresh your skills and helps you build on your skills. But it also shows potential employers that you are self-directed."

Working on a personal project will help you "stand out from the rest of the pack," he says, even if the likelihood of your project becoming a full-blown company is low. 

"You'll at least have developed more of your skills and shown again that you have that entrepreneurial, innovative mindset that employers can find interesting," he says. 

'Don't lose hope'

Ultimately, the professionals CNBC Make It spoke with offered young people today a sense of optimism. 

McCann, who now spends her professional life connecting workers with jobs says she is hopeful the labor market will eventually rebound. "People will be able to move forward," she says. "And just because you're going through this right now doesn't mean that in the future that you won't be at a great place in your career."

"You're gonna get kicked in the butt for sure," says McGoodwin, arguing that facing difficulty early in your career may be an unexpected silver lining. "It's better to fall on your face right away than it is to do it five, 10 years in."

She continues, "You're going to be OK. You are going to figure out how to make it through this. You're gonna get creative. You're gonna learn new skill sets. And, yeah, you might not end up where you thought you're gonna be, but you might end up in someplace better."

Simply put: "Don't lose hope," says Patel. 

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