06/11/2020 Jeni Kramer

No lifeguard on duty: how COVID killed the “starter job”

In many ways, 2020 is the summer that wasn’t. As we watch widespread full and partial closures of restaurants, beaches, pools, golf courses and more, it seems nothing puts a damper on summer fun quite like a global pandemic. Along with our ability to relax poolside or enjoy a bustling patio brunch, so go many of the “starter jobs” typically filled by young people on summer break. The industries that usually employ these young workers (retail, restaurants, and recreation) have been battered by lockdowns and new job seekers are finding themselves with far fewer opportunities for seasonal work.  

In April, U.S. unemployment for ages 16–19 hit 32%, the highest it’s been since 1948. This is in stark contrast with the numbers seen last summer – in July 2019, U.S. youth unemployment fell to 9.1%, the lowest level since 1966. 

Globally, over one-sixth of young workers have stopped working during the pandemic, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the UN’s labor arm. A recent ILO report found that the equivalent of 305 million full-time jobs have been lost in Q2 alone. 

This means a potentially devastating loss of income for working families, as well as for young people attempting to cover college tuition or other expenses. But the ramifications may be much larger than immediate financial strife. ILO Director-General Guy Ryder warns of the “danger of long-term exclusion” from the workforce as young people miss out on critical on-the-job training and resume building experience. Postponing entry into the workforce in this way has the potential to delay or thwart career paths entirely. “I don’t think it is giving way to hyperbole to talk about the danger of a lock-down generation,” said Ryder. 

But for all the bad news, there is at least some reason to be hopeful. While restrictions ease and businesses reopen, job numbers are improving as we cautiously emerge from quarantine. Our data shows that new job openings jumped sharply in May, rising 24% from the prior month. However, with unemployment still at 13% as of May, competition for available jobs will be stiff. A lot more people will be competing for a lot fewer positions, as prolonged social distancing guidelines demand reduced capacities in restaurants, retail, pools, and nearly all public spaces.

For young job seekers, the key to navigating this tumultuous time will be perseverance. It may take a little longer to land something, but there is plenty to be done while you wait. Volunteer opportunities can help fill the time, and they are a great way to add some juice to a resume that may be lacking in actual work experience. It’s also an excellent time to focus on building a network. Hit LinkedIn to find groups or individuals relevant to your area of interest, and don’t be afraid to introduce yourself by way of a direct message. You can also use surplus time to work on interview skills, or build other marketable skills through online education opportunities. There’s no shortage of these opportunities now, as many providers (Masterclass, Coursera, Udemy and many others) have expanded their offerings to meet the demands seen during quarantine. Being proactive about building skills and increasing employability can help you stand out in a crowded market.  Be strategic, use your downtime, and you’ll be poised and ready to claim your “starter job” when it comes along.

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