COVID-19 has affected so many different elements of our everyday lives. However, one group of people in particular are struggling in a way that most people will never fully understand.
The recent college graduates have been on my mind a lot lately. It’s hard to imagine how surreal it must be to have your college graduation held online, if even held at all. How anticlimactic. At least four years of hard work, long nights, countless papers, a few mistakes, and it all ends with, well, nothing. Unfortunately, that might be just the beginning of the bad news.
I started wondering how new graduates were faring with job placement. From anecdotal experience, it’s easy to recognize that this current job market is anything but stable. My company is even taking measures to only move forward with “business-critical hires” at the moment. I’m positive other businesses in just about every industry are being careful about hiring, given that “cash is king”. What I mean by that statement is this: Companies across the nation are cutting inventory, reducing costs, reducing hours, maybe even cutting staff, all as a way to keep their cash flow in a good place. It’s a lot easier to ride the wave of uncertainty if your company is in a good cash position. Hiring (read: adding costs) is not something companies want to do right now if they can avoid it.
So why was I wondering about new grads? Ten years ago, I dealt with something somewhat similar. As it turns out, I graduated in December 2009. The unemployment rate in October 2009 soared to 10.0 percent. At the risk of getting too far into the weeds, let me explain (to a minimal extent) why this happened. Initially I thought it only had to do with the recession in 2008. And to some extent, it did. But what I learned from an article posted in March 2010 from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco was that something very unexpected happened in 2009. The unemployment rate was expected to rise, sure. However the unemployment rate deviated from something called Okun’s Law, which basically projects that whatever rate the GDP falls or rises, the unemployment rate will rise or fall (respectively) at about 50% of that rate. For example, in 2009 the GDP fell 3%, so the unemployment rate was expected to rise by 1.5 percent. But it didn’t. It doubled, increasing by 3% and throwing a major wrench in projections from economists across the country.
Why did this happen? Well, I’ll quote the thesis from the article referenced above directly:
In 2009, strong growth in productivity allowed firms to lay off large numbers of workers while holding output relatively steady.
So, productivity went up and less people were needed to achieve the same output as before. It makes sense. Businesses everywhere struggled during the 2008 recession and had to find creative ways to stay afloat. A sharp growth in productivity was bound to happen.
Graduating in 2009 with a bachelors degree in Mass Communication was about as useful as lighting a couple year’s salary on fire. I couldn’t find gainful employment anywhere. I married my wife in January 2010 and moved to North Carolina the next month, without a job. On the drive down to our new home, I finally heard back from a company I’d reached out to months before asking for a job. The best they could offer was an unpaid internship. It was the best I could have hoped for. I wish I still had the spreadsheet, but I probably cold-called (or emailed) a hundred different media companies, marketing companies, news agencies, wedding videography companies (seriously), and I maybe heard back from five of them in the weeks before my move to North Carolina. When that offer came in to edit random videos for the benefit of experience only, I thought I’d won the lottery.
If you know me at all, you’ll understand that my career has never gone the way I had hoped it would. I ended up getting a job at a wood mill loading and unloading flatbed trucks and rail cars for $11.60 an hour and some half-decent health insurance benefits. That was April of 2010. It’s now over ten years later and, you’d never guess this, but I’ve never broken back into the media industry. Instead, here’s the list of job titles I’ve had in my career to this point:
Quality Assurance Technician
Inside Sales Representative
I’m not done yet, but I wanted to point out that those seven jobs were all with the same company. I worked there for a total of five years. Seven jobs in five years. Yep. Okay, so here’s the rest:
Relationship Manager (basically a fancy way of saying “Customer Service Rep”)
Supply Chain Coordinator
Supply Chain Specialist
Supply Chain Operations Specialist
Sure, those last three sound like the same thing, but my new company can be a little stingy with their job titles. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Anyway, that’s 11 different jobs in a ten year span. One more time for those of you who struggle with the maths. The number of jobs I’ve had in my career is greater than the number of years I’ve worked. That’s what the recession of 2008 and the subsequent unemployment crisis of 2009 did to my career.
Thinking about all that made me wonder about 2020. A few of the guys I work out with on a regular basis have kids graduating from college this year. Thinking back to the start of my own career, I can’t imagine what new grads are thinking right now. With all the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 and the effects on the economy in general, there are tens of thousands of graduates across the country who no longer have fingernails due to anxiously biting them off.
To add to that anxiety momentarily before I move on to brighter things, here’s the conclusion from the article I referenced above:
Some of the surge in productivity growth in 2009 was likely due to such cyclical factors as layoffs of least productive workers, greater intensity of work effort, and shifts away from producing intangible capital, which is not measured in output statistics. Anecdotal evidence suggests that efforts to contain costs and remain nimble in the face of uncertainty have become a fixture in business strategy. If productivity keeps on growing at an above-average pace, then unemployment forecasts based on Okun’s law could continue to be overly optimistic.
I bolded the sentence that stuck out to me most, because it feels familiar. The phrases “remain nimble” and “contain costs” and “in the face of uncertainty” are all things I’ve heard no less than 15 times since the beginning of March 2020. I’ve read articles and seen first-hand evidence of companies trying to become as nimble as possible while also increasing productivity by using emerging technologies (like telecommuting, among other things). Thinking about all of this, I can’t help but wonder (read: worry) about whether history will repeat itself or not.
Okay. So that’s all very grave and serious and horrifying to think about. But let’s get to the good news. There is hope to be had here for our newest graduates, or any job seeker for that matter, if they will remember one thing. Your career may not start the way you intended it to, but it can end however the hell you want it to. You will probably work close to 45 years before you’re able to retire. I’m a mere 10 years into my career, not even a quarter of the way through, and I have a long list of things I want to accomplish over the next 30+ years. A crappy start won’t define my career if I don’t let it. That’s what job seekers need to remember, new grads or otherwise.
Frankly, these situations are quite different, despite their similarities, but the way out of the mess is the same. Stick with it. It may suck right now, but in a year or two, things will have changed, and so will you. Hang in there and keep moving forward. You’ll get to your goal, no matter what path you take to get there, if you keep moving forward. Adopt a mentality of embracing the challenge and persevering. It’ll make you a better employee and an even better person. In the grand scheme, a few years grinding away at something not even close to what you thought you’d be doing will actually teach you a few lessons you can use once you get to where you want to be. Your career situation can and will change, sometimes quite quickly. Being a guy who’s had 11 jobs in 10 years, I know this to be true. ♦