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This STEM graduate has been applying for five jobs per day – and no luck yet

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. As part of the series, each student chose a recent college graduate to profile to provide an up-close and personal look at who the class of 2020 is, what issues they're facing as they try to find a job in these extraordinary times – and how they're tackling them. Here is the story of Madison Burns, a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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

Graduating during a pandemic wasn't what 2020 college graduates had in mind when they pictured their senior years.

Madison Burns, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill graduate with a degree in statistics and political science, was looking forward to the annual senior traditions of climbing UNC's Bell Tower and senior bar golf. Instead, her graduation was canceled along with all the in-person traditions before it, with classes going online immediately following spring break.

Burns is among the millions of college students across the country who are entering the worst job market in over a decade with higher competition and lower starting salaries, according to talent acquisition company iCIMS. Like so many others, she has still not found a job.

Going back to school as a safe option

Burns started searching for research or data science positions in September. Now, nine months later, she's applying for at least five jobs a day. Several companies have continuously extended their application period and said they would place her in a waiting pool for when they hire again – but no job offers yet.

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.

"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."

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Burns said she's now considering going back to school to get a graduate degree.

"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."

Coronavirus poses an added challenge

While she applies nearly everywhere, Burns has another concern in finding a job and living in a post-coronavirus world: she has cystic fibrosis, making her in the at-risk category for the virus. In evaluating jobs, she must consider the safety of the workplace, whether remote or in-office right now.

Many college graduates who have yet to find a job would turn to service or restaurant jobs, but that presents unique health challenges for Burns. So far, Burns has lived off unemployment from a previous job and savings, but she knows eventually it will run out.

"I don't feel comfortable applying to any jobs in a restaurant or anything remotely minimum wage because I know that I would have to interact with people that aren't taking this virus as seriously as they should be," Burns said.

Even before Covid-19, Burns had to take medication and complete hours of treatment for cystic fibrosis daily. After studying abroad in Portugal last summer, Burns became sick, struggling with her health for the past year. In early 2020, she finally had it more under control. But in March, Covid-19 struck, intensifying her worries over health once again.

North Carolina, like many other states, is set to enter phase three of reopening soon.

 "I am also battling with the fact that people are going to start going to places and they're going to be like, 'Hey, Madison, where are you? Want to come out?' And I'm going to have to say, no, I can't. I have to stay home and wear a mask because you guys are going to Pantana Bob's," she said of a popular restaurant and bar in Chapel Hill, NC.

Hope for real change

Burns said she is still generally being careful in public, but has been motivated to join the Black Lives Matter movement's recent local protests in response to George Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody.

"I have gone to a few protests. I've definitely stayed in the back and tried to stay away from as many people as possible," she said, adding that she is hopeful that the protests could bring change. "I think this is the perfect storm to actually have a genuine people's revolution," Burns said.

As for the overall impact on her generation — a generation that will likely always remember the coronavirus pandemic as a defining moment in their early adulthood — Burns is unsure if it will eventually be positive or negative.

"My hope is that the systems change. I don't know if we're going to come out of this being so career-focused or are we going to have real career paths. I definitely don't think college is going to be the same. I don't know if the workplace is going to be the same."

Still, Burns wishes for a type of change.

"My hope is that all of these things change, and they are different and for the better and that we get to address all the systemic issues that we've been fighting for … for many years," Burns said.

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.