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Another Graduating Class Faces A Workforce In Which Young People Are Struggling

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The job market seems to be on the cusp of a big recovery. Hiring is picking up, and the monthly unemployment rate keeps falling. But for young people, there is a lot of anxiety. Many students who graduated last year are still looking for jobs, and now a new class is getting ready to enter the workforce, too. NPR's Sam Gringlas reports.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: This Friday, the jobs report is supposed to be a blockbuster, but that doesn't mean much to Bao Ha. He's graduating soon from Macalester College in Minnesota, and in between his anthropology thesis and trying to cross items off his senior-year bucket list, he's been in overdrive, hunting for a job.

BAO HA: I've probably applied to, like, 130 or -40 jobs or something. I have not gotten, like, even, like, a email back or, like, an interview.

GRINGLAS: Ha knows finding a first job is hard, especially this past year. Last April, the youth unemployment rate hit almost 30%. It's improved a lot since then, but it's still at about 10%. Even knowing all that, Ha can't help but feel a little self-doubt. He's applied for all kinds of jobs in lots of cities.

HA: Maybe I'm applying to things that I'm not qualified for. Maybe my cover letters suck. Maybe my resume sucks.

GRINGLAS: Ha is the first generation in his family to graduate college. His school is having an in-person ceremony, so he's relieved his parents will see him walk across the stage. But there's still so much uncertainty.

HA: You know, I haven't given up. Like, I'm still applying. Like, I applied to a job right before this. I'm going to apply to some after this probably. I'm going to just keep applying to jobs until, you know, something hits.

GRINGLAS: When the economy gets bad, the job market is usually worse for young people. Economist Elise Gould says employers looking to hire have lots of options.

ELISE GOULD: And they're going to choose people with more experience. And so young workers are left out in the cold, and many are going to have a hard time starting their career.

GRINGLAS: Gould is careful not to draw too many comparisons with the last recession. This time, jobs are coming back a lot faster. But the scarring effects the last recession had on young people makes her worry.

GOULD: It took many years for some of those young, high school and college graduates to get their foothold in the labor market and to really get on a path to be able to start families, to invest and buy a car or buy a house.

GRINGLAS: Young people without college degrees fared even worse during the pandemic downturn. Many worked in sectors like hospitality and retail, where millions lost their jobs. Guadalupe Avalos is a senior at Cass Technical High School in Detroit. Last April, she was just a few months into a part-time job as a barista.

GUADALUPE AVALOS: I didn't use the espresso machine because I was still learning to use that one and it takes a minute. But...

GRINGLAS: When the shutdowns began, the coffee shop let her go. Avalos asked about jobs at a nearby grocery, a pizza place - no luck.

AVALOS: Yeah, there was a job at a McDonald's, but it was, like, 20 minutes away, and I don't have that kind of transportation available to me.

GRINGLAS: For lots of young people, part-time jobs aren't just a way to earn some extra spending money; that income determines whether Avalos will be able to pay college room and board next fall.

AVALOS: I really, really, really want to move out and go to a college dorm room, but if I don't have that money, then I might just have to stay home.

GRINGLAS: There are also students who graduated last spring and are still trying to start their careers. It's been a year since Erica Schoenberg watched virtual college graduation from her living room couch. Since then, she's struggled to line up a full-time job and had to move back home.

ERICA SCHOENBERG: Partway through the fall, I'd kind of accepted that I hadn't gotten a salaried job, and I wanted some - well, I wanted some more income, and I also just really needed something to fill the days.

GRINGLAS: So Schoenberg took a part-time job at a fabric store and teaches Hebrew school over Zoom.

SCHOENBERG: Let's go through some prayers. (Speaking Hebrew).

GRINGLAS: It's not the career in publishing Schoenberg imagined. Now she worries about the gap on her resume.

SCHOENBERG: My mom said she thinks I can put recent graduate up until the next people do.

GRINGLAS: But that's only about a month away. Schoenberg hopes the job market will bounce back, like economists say, and she can finally start her career.

Sam Gringlas, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVOLUTION OF STARS' "PRETENDING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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