Invest in You: Ready. Set. Grow.

How creative 2020 college graduates are launching their careers during the pandemic

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 15: Students wear protective face masks, graduation caps and graduation gowns outside The New School during the coronavirus pandemic on May 15, 2020 in New York City.
Noam Galai

"You guys are part of a generation that knows how to create more than any generation before. You know how to be your own brand; You've got to take advantage of that."

That was the advice that Dan Roth, editor-in-chief at LinkedIn, offered to college students at the height of the pandemic just six months ago. His advice came as part of a CNBC & Acorns Town Hall Special – Invest in You: Ready. Set. Grow Your Future, which featured everyday Americans who have been greatly affected by the current health, social and economic crises along with some of the most respected financial experts and thought leaders.

And while the coronavirus pandemic has changed the world as we used to know it before long months of quarantine and social distancing, for many college students – nearly 4 million who graduated last year – this continues to be a time of particular worry and uncertainty.

The unemployment rate for young people (16-24) is currently 11.5%, nearly double the overall unemployment rate of 6.7%, according to the Labor Department.

Another consequence of the pandemic is that a lot of companies have chosen to have their employees work from home. An estimated 42% of the U.S. labor force is working remotely, according to research conducted by Stanford University.

But despite this job market being one of the worst in decades, the graduates that CNBC spoke with last summer have made remarkable strides in their professional lives.

Where are they now?

"In October, I secured an interview and a job offer within a week," said Deni Budman, a 2020 graduate featured in July's CNBC Town Hall Special. Just prior to the special, Budman had graduated from Boston University with a degree in film and television production. Prior to that, she had started what was her "dream internship," thinking that it would be the launch of her career, until she was laid off at the outset of the pandemic in March.

"It's incredible that you're already being creative and you're trying to help people in your community," LinkedIn's Roth told Budman in July. "You've got to do more of it. Become your own brand, people will hire you."

And they did.

Today, Budman is living in Los Angeles working as a production assistant on Season 5 of Insecure on HBO. "While my spreadsheet of job applications continued to grow, I found that the second page I had reserved for potential networking opportunities proved much more influential than the corporate job applications I was seeing online," she told CNBC. "I had a few conversations and received copious words of encouragement. Finally, one conversation led to another, and with my newly rebranded resume forwarded along in email chains, something stuck."

Meet the graduates of the pandemic

Similar fortune struck Tarek Ziad – another Covid-era graduate of Yale University who studied ecology and theatre – but his fortune didn't last long.

In July, Roth told Ziad that if it's not possible to find your dream job, "just get a job; You've got to get any job." And that's exactly what he did.

"Since the TV special, I was offered a job in New York City, so I left New Haven, Connecticut, and moved to Brooklyn, but that job was then canceled as a result of the second wave of Covid," Ziad said. "Thankfully, I make enough money teaching English and public speaking classes online part-time to make do, so I've been living in Brooklyn since September. I also have a second part-time job, where I've been using my experience as a sound designer and engineer for theater to serve as the creative producer of a developing podcast for the North Virginia Family Medical Practice, helping their team conceptualize the project and handling all of the editing and post-production."

Turning advice into accolades

"You've got to get out there and have something on your profile that says you're working. That's No. 1," Roth told all 2020 graduates. "You want to make sure you have some kind of side hustle going."

"I know that's a lot – teaching online, producing a podcast, performing virtually, applying for full-time work – but that's basically been my vibe since losing my first job this summer: Juggling as much as I can to get by," Ziad said, following Roth's advice.

Similarly, Budman said she "really took Roth's advice to heart," working on her personal brand through everything she was able to create, which she says included teaching herself some new Adobe programs and overhauling the resume that led to her new role at HBO.

"Gain those transferrable skills," Roth told another 2020 graduate, Sydney Taylor, who earned a double major in psychology and sociology from Fordham University.

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"Your dream job isn't available right now – that's okay," Roth told her in July. "Seek out those industries and opportunities that will get you those skills and I think you'll find something that you never expected to have."

She did.

Taylor was recently offered a full-time job that allowed her to move back to New York City, working as a junior account executive at a corporate communications firm specializing in the healthcare and life sciences industry. Prior to the pandemic, Taylor had been working in a lab at Columbia University Medical Center conducting her own research while interviewing at some of the top psychiatric facilities before "everything came full-stop," as she said in July. "Working in investor relations has provided me with an amazing learning opportunity and stable employment," Taylor said.

"It's everything I could have dreamed of and more in terms of launching my career," said Budman. "I'm constantly feeling fortunate ... and I'm looking forward to all of the excitement ahead."

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.