My sister graduated from college in May 2020. Instead of entering one of the best job markets for workers in United States history with 3.5% unemployment, she lost her initial job promise. She then found herself competing with tens of millions of unemployed workers with far more experience.
She’s hardly alone. But that’s far from a consolation as she joins roughly 4 million other graduates swelling the ranks of the unemployed, all competing for entry-level jobs. In a job market with over 15% unemployment, levels not seen since the Great Depression.
Some of these graduates have job offers. A handful will even keep them, despite the pandemic-induced recession. Yet far too many graduated only to find their job offer frozen or rescinded entirely.
The risk isn’t limited to the short term, either. Worryingly, the research on workers who graduated college during past recessions appears grim. For example, a 2019 study by UC Berkeley found that those who entered the workforce in the aftermath of the Great Recession earn less than their peers of the same age cohort who entered the workforce earlier or later.
Those who enter the workforce during recessions tend to experience less career success and greater risk aversion, which creates a feedback loop. The most significant bumps in salary and responsibilities often come from changing jobs, but workers who graduated into recessionary job markets don’t take as many job jumps.
So what should college graduates do today to avoid a similar fate tomorrow?
Tips for All Graduates Without Work Currently
Whether their job offers were frozen or rescinded — or they never had one in the first place — college graduates without work can implement the following tips to make the most of the delayed start to their career.
Because even if your job was frozen rather than rescinded, you could hold your breath for a long time waiting for that job to materialize.
1. Don’t Burn Bridges With Your Parents
At 22, after four years of (mostly) living on your own, moving back in with mom and dad is a bummer, to say the very least. I hated the six months or so I spent living with my parents after college. And I had a great relationship with them, which not every graduate can say.
But as frustrating as it is to move back in with your parents, you should do it if at all practical.
First, they will probably let you live rent-free. That alone creates incentive enough to put up with the occasional squabble over the remote or how much time your significant other spends at the house.
They may not even charge you for utilities, creating even more value and savings for you. And if you don’t have a car, they may be generous enough to lend you theirs when you need it.
Finally, you can leverage their professional network to help you find work. It’s a mission they will execute with extreme prejudice, given that they want you fiscally independent as much as you do.
You want to move out of your parents’ house. They want that too, possibly more than you do. But in the meantime, do what it takes to preserve and strengthen your relationship with them. You need them more than they need you in a very real and material sense.
2. Stay on Your Parents’ Health Insurance
Yet one more reason not to burn bridges with your parents: You can remain covered under their health insurance.
Family health plans that cover dependent children extend that coverage until they reach 26. And if there’s ever a time when you want health coverage, it’s amid a global pandemic.
Talk to your parents about whether their current health care plan includes the whole family, and if so, make sure you’re on the policy.
3. Grow Your Professional Network
You can never know too many people. And that goes doubly in careers and industries you want to explore.
Most people hate professional networking. But just like public speaking, it gets easier the more you learn about it — and the more you do it.
Cliches exist for a reason. Jobs do come down to who you know. According to CNBC, 70% of jobs are never publicly posted, and up to 80% of jobs are filled through personal or professional connections.
But building your professional network doesn’t only help you get a job. It can also expose you to many different career paths and help you decide which to take.
4. Figure Out What You Want to Do as a Career
At 22, most people have only the vaguest sense of what they want out of a career. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and most of my friends didn’t either.
The average person falls into their career largely by accident. They gravitate toward what they know — which leaves a minimal range of careers.
In fact, you’ve never even heard of most of the career options available in the world, much less have any sense of their daily responsibilities. And those are the jobs that already exist. Dell Technologies estimates that 85% of the jobs we’ll see in 2030 haven’t been invented yet.
It took me nearly 15 years of working before I realized I wanted to become an entrepreneur. Instead of spending the next 15 years trying to figure out what you really want to do, invest the time now. Use that network you’re building — and your parents’ professional networks — to ask to shadow people for a day or even just a morning or an afternoon. Get a sense of what their workday looks like, what they do day in and day out, because it’s probably not what you imagine in your mind.
If you harbor even the slightest interest in a specific career, find at least one practitioner to shadow. In quick succession, you can establish what jobs you’d absolutely love and what to avoid.
5. Master Financial Literacy
According to Inc., 96% of Americans can’t pass a basic financial literacy test. It’s one of the reasons the poor stay poor while the rich get richer. The wealthy know how to manage and grow their money.
Even growing up in a solid middle-class household, I had to learn personal finance on my own as an adult. My parents didn’t talk about money much — just like most parents who don’t teach their kids how to manage money.
From the basics of creating a budget and opening brokerage accounts to more advanced concepts like house hacking and reaching financial independence at a young age, more knowledge means faster wealth creation. The younger you learn the intricacies of personal finance, the faster you can build real wealth.
You probably have more free time now than you’ll ever have again. Use it to master financial skills most people never learn.
Career & Work Options to Explore
If you wait for the job market to cycle back to 3.5% unemployment, you may never work again.
You caught a lousy hand, graduating into the worst job market in modern history. Give yourself a day or two to mope about it, then get back to the task at hand: positioning yourself to build a career anyway.
For those of you who took a job offer only to have it frozen, don’t just twiddle your thumbs until it thaws. The job may become available relatively soon, or it may never become available. Start planning what comes next — you have more options than you realize.
1. Leverage Your Network to Find a Full-Time Job
Not all companies have stopped hiring during the pandemic. Some employers continue to hire, and many do so quietly through their connections and network.
If you know what kind of work you want to do, start by asking everyone you know if they know anyone in that field. Call in a favor and ask them if they can introduce you for an informational interview, coffee, lunch, or shadowing them for an afternoon to get a better sense of what they do. In the age of COVID-19, those all make a harder sell, but you can always ask for an online chat if that’s more practical.
I got my first job out of college through an informational interview. My stepfather arranged it with an acquaintance of his, and it launched me down a winding career path with plenty of twists and turns.
But don’t stop with your parents’ and friends’ networks. Work day and night to build your own professional network. Those connections can get your foot in the door.
And don’t be afraid to take alternative routes. Research not just recession-proof jobs and jobs that require no work experience, but also check out jobs that provide free housing or jobs that let you live and work anywhere in the world.
Pro tip: If you’re hoping to find a career with a flexible work schedule, start your search with Flexjobs. With Flexjobs, you can find remote work-from-home jobs, freelance positions, and companies that offer flexible hours.
2. Offer to Work for Free in Your Ideal Career
Many companies don’t have money to pay all the workers they want to right now. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have work for them.
As you meet with people who work in your ideal career, wrap up by offering to work for them for free. Try the direct approach: “I know you don’t have the money to hire me right now, but I absolutely love what your company is doing. This is my ideal career, and I’m so passionate I’m willing to work for free until you’re in a position to pay me. I can start Monday, and I don’t cost a cent.”
Many workers can’t afford to work for free. If you’re living with your parents, you probably can. Again, it gets your foot in the door, and from there, you can leverage your work into a paid position in the career of your dreams.
3. Take a Part-Time Job
I once took a low-pay part-time telecommute job just to bring in a few extra dollars while trying to figure out what came next in my career. Over the next year, that startup company exploded in revenue, and my job quickly became full-time and grew into an executive position.
Don’t dismiss part-time jobs as beneath you. Some part-time jobs pay well. Others can provide you with health insurance, and some might teach you valuable career skills you can later leverage to help you get a full-time job.
Most are flexible, leaving you plenty of time to position yourself for your longer-term goals.
4. Start a Side Hustle
You’d be amazed at how many successful businesses started as side hustles.
While you invest time into building your network or working, consider also launching a side gig. It could be something simple you work on from home, such as teaching English online through Education First or freelance writing. Or you could find a job that lets you get out and about, such as delivering food for DoorDash or even finding one that lets you make money while walking.
Explore other popular side gigs, and get creative with it. Have fun, make some extra money, and keep it low-stress.
5. Start a Business
There was a time when starting a business was inescapably expensive. Entrepreneurs had to gather seed capital to rent a physical location, furnish and decorate it, cover initial inventory, hire attorneys to draft the legal paperwork, and pay workers.
Today, you can start a virtual business with almost nothing. You don’t necessarily need to spend a cent on any of those traditional costs, and you can build your own website using simple, low-tech tools.
It’s easier with more money, of course, which explains why so many entrepreneurs start their businesses on the side while working another job. But you don’t need much startup capital to start an online business in a down economy if you have time and an appetite to learn the dozens of different skills you need.
If you can’t find a job right now, consider creating your own. What do you have to lose?
6. Enroll in Graduate School
Let’s be clear: graduate school is a means to an end, a prerequisite for a specific career path. Unlike an undergraduate degree, which serves more as a broad differentiator to sort yourself into a higher employment category, graduate degrees only justify their cost in time and tuition if you actually use that degree to pursue your dream career.
But if you know what you want to do with your life and a graduate degree can help you, then now could be the right time to knock it out.
Since colleges and universities are universally struggling right now, many have relaxed their policies, both in who they admit and when they allow enrollment.
Before committing to several years of hard work and expensive tuition, make sure you genuinely want to spend your career in that field. Shadow at least one or two practitioners to make sure the daily routine matches the image in your mind. But if after doing your due diligence you still want that career, get your graduate degree now.
7. Get Professional Certifications
Depending on your ideal career path, you may need professional certifications rather than a graduate degree. In many technical fields, for example, you can demonstrate proficiency in specific programming languages, operating systems, or data architectures with up-to-date certifications.
In normal times, you may have gradually taken courses on the side while working a full-time job, requiring several years to position yourself for the job you really want. But if you can’t find a job right now, you can knock many out in rapid succession.
Again, before spending the money and effort, make sure you actually want to work in that field. Certifications, like graduate degrees, are a means to a specific end. Confirm you want to get there before setting off down that path.
Pro tip: If you’re interested in getting a professional certificate, edX offers programs from some of the top institutions in the country, including Harvard, Berkley, Columbia, and more.
8. Join the Military
Many college graduates never consider the military, either as a long-term career or as a starting point for a career outside it. But the military offers more perks than most graduates realize.
First, college graduates usually enter the military as a commissioned officer. If you imagined a military career as a grunt, think again.
As a commissioned officer, you enjoy benefits ranging from higher pay to more freedom to choose what kind of military work you want. Sure, you could proceed as a combat officer, but you could also work as an intelligence officer, logistics officer, or in strategic planning and war games. My old college roommate went into the latter, for example, and makes plenty of money doing fun and interesting work.
Military service members also enjoy spectacular retirement benefits. You get the best of both worlds: a defined contribution plan with employer matching (the Thrift Savings Plan) and a defined benefit plan (the military pension).
The military also provides excellent on-the-job training and career skills you can take to the private sector later if you so choose.
If you’ve never considered it, invest the time to research the surprising benefits of joining the military, particularly as a college-educated officer. You’d be surprised at the wealth of career options available.
9. Volunteer Locally or Abroad
Never do more people need help, both at home and abroad, than in the throes of a global recession and health crisis.
Nor does volunteering just serve others. Beyond the rewards inherent in helping other people, volunteering also brings plenty of tangible benefits.
First, you can develop marketable skills that can help you land a better job later. As a recurring theme, it can also help you build valuable connections, which also boost your job prospects down the road.
If you volunteer abroad, you get to travel and gain exposure to other cultures. In many cases, such as the Peace Corps, you enjoy free housing, a stipend, and months of free job training. Some Peace Corps (and AmeriCorps) volunteers also qualify for student loan forgiveness, an enticing perk.
And potential employers look far more kindly on two years devoted to the Peace Corps than two years spent playing video games in your parents’ basement.
The work you do today for free or modest pay can pave the way for a paid career in a field you love. Volunteering comes with more perks than you think, both tangible and intangible, and lets you make a difference in a world that needs it more than ever. For more ideas on where you can volunteer, read our article on the best volunteering opportunities.
Bleak as the job market looks right now for new college graduates, you have more options than you realize. They may require more creativity and initiative than you originally planned to invest, but in a rapidly evolving workforce, those are increasingly the price tags of success in any field.
The best advice for new college graduates is two-pronged. First, invest the time to experience firsthand every field you think you might enjoy. Spend day after day shadowing people in careers that interest you. If someone doesn’t let you shadow them, ask to sit down for a conversation with them at the very least.
When you find a career that speaks to you, lay whatever groundwork it takes to pave a path for it. And if you still find yourself at a loss for what you want to do with your life, think of ways to volunteer while you figure it out or serve as an officer in the military.
When you serve others, you learn a lot about yourself in the process.
What directions are you considering right now? How do you plan to choose among them?