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The Class of 2020 is getting a crash course in pivoting — changing their career outlook, delaying graduation — whatever it takes

Key Points
  • Suzanne Blake is a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • She talked to several recent college graduates from across the U.S. to find out how they're handling the brutal job market that has resulted from the coronavirus pandemic.

CNBC's "College Voices 2020" is a series written by CNBC summer interns from universities across the country about coming of age, launching new careers and job hunting during a global pandemic. They're finding their voices during a time of great social change and hope for a better future. What money issues are they facing? How are they navigating their student loans? How are they getting work experience, networking and applying for jobs when so many opportunities have been canceled or postponed? How important is diversity and a company's values to Gen Z job seekers?  

New college graduates are entering the worst job market in over a decade with higher competition and lower starting salaries due to coronavirus. For many, it's caused them to rethink their career path.

The overall unemployment rate was 11.1% in June — that number jumps to 19.8% for those aged 20-24, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With many businesses struggling to cut costs as revenue shrinks, starting salaries have also suffered. Entry-level jobs now pay an average of $54,585, down from last year's $59,765, according to talent acquisition software company iCIMS.

Changing career paths

Precious Hardy, a third-year psychology doctoral student at the University of Missouri at Columbia, always planned to become a psychology professor. Once the coronavirus crisis hit, none of that was certain anymore.

Hardy said universities don't have enough money for the professors they already have.

"It doesn't look promising because I was scheduled originally to graduate next year," Hardy said.

Precious Hardy, a third-year psychology doctoral student at the University of Missouri at Columbia.
Source: Precious Hardy

Now Hardy has turned to a different path of research in the private sector.

"I still want to be able to be in a job where I feel like I'm still fulfilling my mission" to address educational achievement gaps, Hardy said. "That doesn't necessarily mean I need to be a professor to do that. I can be a researcher ... and we can find out identifiers that help or hinder student success in academia."

Hardy isn't alone in changing career paths in the time of Covid-19. About 28% of students said they are considering changing their career path because of Covid-19, according to a survey by internship-placement service CareerUp. Events-management students and students planning to work for non-governmental organizations or nonprofits were most likely to be considering a change in career direction.

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Jake Lane, a 2020 graduate of Florida State University with a degree in risk management, watched his graduation online. During the middle of his last semester, he moved home with his parents and saw all the career fairs get postponed. So, he made a choice to go in a different direction: working at his family business as an e-commerce manager.

"Nobody's responding or they're just saying that they can't hire because so many people are even firing employees that they have now, let alone trying to hire new ones," Lane said. "So, I figured I might as well try to expand my horizons because with a business degree, it's pretty versatile."

After spending time at home amid the shattered job market his graduating class is facing, Lane was offered a job by his mom. He took the offer — working for his mother's company, Rinseroo, which produces slip-on showerhead attachments for cleaning and dog washing.

Jake Lane, a 2020 graduate of Florida State University, works at the Rinseroo headquarters in Clarksburg, NJ.
Source: Lisa Lane

Lane acknowledged he's lucky compared to some of his friends, who have had job offers rescinded and pay cuts brought on by the pandemic.

Going to grad school

Madison Burns graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill this year with a degree in statistics and political science.

STEM jobs – in science, technology, engineering and math – tend to be among the most in-demand. So much so that many people think if you graduate with a STEM degree, you are almost guaranteed a job. But, coronavirus has left no industry unscathed and Burns says she's worried about her job outlook.

Burns started searching for research or data science positions in September but like so many others, still hasn't found a job. She said she applies for at least five jobs a day. Several companies have extended their application period and placed her in a waiting pool for when they hire again.

"It's left myself and a lot of people that I know pretty insecure in their future, like where am I going to be living?" Burns said. "Am I going to have to move back in with my parents? Some people don't have that option."

Madison Burns graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Class of 2020, with a degree in statistics and political science.
Source: Abigail Burns

Burns shares a lot of the same worries about coronavirus as other students but she has an added concern: She has cystic fibrosis, putting her at a higher risk for contracting the virus.

All of this has made her seriously consider applying to graduate school.

"I definitely have geared more towards research-oriented jobs because I've all but decided I'm going to go back to school just because it seems like the most reasonable escape from whatever recession we're about to see," Burns said. "Now if I were to be hired for a data science position I would much rather not go back to school and just start my career, but I am losing confidence that that is an option."

Delaying graduation

As the senior director of the University of Southern California's Alumni and Student Career Services, Lori Shreve Blake said she doesn't see many students outright changing their majors to a new career field. Instead, she's seeing a trend of students adding on a minor to their degree, increasing their marketability and delaying their graduation.

Shreve Blake advises students to focus on what transferable skills they can build during the pandemic. Internships, which are sometimes available remotely, are especially critical, she said. Scheduling informational interviews is also easier than ever now because it's all virtual – no need to figure out how to travel to an interview.

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What hiring managers look for in video interviews

"I really think for recent grads what's really important is what story are you going to tell after this pandemic," Shreve Blake said. "We don't know when the pandemic is going to end, but we know it will end. And so, this too shall pass. And so what story are you going to tell employers?"

In essence: don't put the brakes on your job search, she said. Don't think it's OK to just take the summer off. Eventually, you will be going to an interview and if one student explains how they took online courses to boost their skills or applied to five jobs per day and you say you took the summer off — who do you think they will hire? Showing initiative — even during a crisis — is important for impressing future employers.

Finding growth areas

Lane wasn't planning to work for his mom's company after graduation but said he's enjoyed working in e-commerce and thinks it is one of the fields that will flourish because of Covid-19.

"E-commerce is kind of huge, especially after this coronavirus because I think people are starting to realize that pretty much anything is possible to do online because everybody's working remotely," Lane said. "So I think that e-commerce is going to really start booming after this, so I think having this opportunity is really good."

While the job market is at its lowest in over a decade, Shreve Blake said students have lived through hard times before during the dot-com bust and the Great Recession.

"I know those people have rebounded, and they turn, as our speaker said last week at the Trojans to Trojans networking day, they 'turn lemons into lemon bars,'" Shreve Blake said.

Ultimately, Shreve Blake said she thinks this period will make this generation stronger and more resilient.

"I don't think they have to miss a beat," Shreve Blake said. "I think they just need to keep moving forward and take the blinders down, stay open to possibilities, stay open to new industries they haven't thought of before because as college grads, employers want somebody who's smart, who has a great attitude and who's willing to learn. And I think if you, at the end of the day, if you have those qualities and you are pursuing, moving forward in life, I think they'll do fine."

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.