Kasim Kabbara is a first-generation college graduate who studied abroad in China. The 24-year-old double majored in television, film and radio, and the African-American diaspora at the University of Texas. And yet this past spring, none of his skills and experiences came across in his third round of interviews for a competitive summer internship at SiriusXM.
Interviewing remotely, Kabbara never met with a recruiter at SiriusXM. Instead, the company sent a link instructing him to record himself answering a few interview questions on the spot. He says he was given 30 seconds to practice and two minutes to record how he would “describe himself” – with no second takes.
“You get these generic questions with short one-minute intervals, and it is hard for me to say all of the other stuff that makes me interesting,” Kabbara says.
Kabbara, about to enter this second year of graduate studies at Georgetown University, is just one of the millions of young workers and students around the world who are struggling to enter the workforce for the first time this year. For more than a year, the COVID-19 pandemic-induced economic downturns have disrupted young workers and students entering countries’ workforces.
As a result, young adult unemployment is growing in an age where global economic inequality was already on the rise well before the pandemic hit. And the pandemic recession has had a disproportionate impact on the job prospects of young workers. According to the International Labor Organization, the decline in employment rates in 2020 among young workers internationally was 2.5 times greater than that experienced by adults.
“COVID-19 did not create a new problem, but laid bare already concerning levels of youth unemployment and underemployment in certain regions of the world,” says Chris Maclay, the director of youth employment at Mercy Corps.
Now, facing growing inequality coupled with limited job and internship opportunities available in many countries, young workers are forced to compete fiercely with their peers to stand out from the pile of hundreds of applicants. This age group also lacks the professional and economic resources necessary to weather such a disruptive global crisis.
Fierce Competition, Limited Opportunities
Late spring and early summer typically marks the beginning of internship season, where hopeful university students can be found grabbing coffees, manning the phones, writing drafts and honing other key skills needed to move up in their chosen profession.
However, this year’s intern season looks quite different, as entry-level jobs and internships have largely moved to remote work, and as increased competition and limited opportunities have left many students frantically trying to land any gig they can.
“I’ve sent 43 applications in total in 2021. Thirty of those I’ve not received a reply yet, and I probably will never receive one,” says Carlo Cozzi, 21, a sophomore at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy.
Last summer, Cozzi says he watched Bocconi cohorts ahead of him struggle to land internships and jobs as the pandemic brought economic life to a halt. Determined not to meet the same fate, he decided to begin applying to summer 2021 internships last October.
Yet in December, he hit his first roadblock: the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union. The timing could not have been worse for Cozzi. He applied to several internships in the U.K. in the fall of 2020 before Brexit rules became effective. By December, he was receiving rejection emails from his dream firms saying that he was no longer eligible for work.
Now months behind where he had hoped to be, Cozzi pivoted his focus to other EU countries, only to find he was not only competing with his own academic class for entry-level internships, but he was also up against students from several classes above him who missed out on the same opportunities the summer before.
In parts of the Middle East and Africa, the job opportunities are even more limited than in Europe and the United States due to developing countries struggling to provide for young, booming populations. According to Maclay of Mercy Corps, 18 million young people entered the job market in sub-Saharan Africa last year, but only 3 million formal jobs were created.
“This is a huge gap, and it is about to get even wider,” Maclay said in an emailed response. “By 2030 there will be 30 million young people entering the labor market each year.”
Networking Opportunities Denied
Mbayi Aben, 24, has spent the past few months rapidly ramping up her internship applications to pivot toward her dream of becoming a documentary filmmaker.
In the fall of 2020, Aben moved from her hometown of San Antonio to Chicago in pursuit of a Master of fine arts in documentary media at Northwestern University. For most of her fall and winter quarters, her classes and technical training sessions have been conducted entirely online. And according to Aben, the virtual learning environment and social distancing have hindered her ability to develop another critical skill she is falling behind on this spring: networking.
“Another way of networking is just building your community, and that’s been so hard for me during the pandemic,” Aben says.
“There’s so many filmmakers in Chicago, but I can’t go to festivals, or places like that. So, there’s just so much frustration, and that really disappoints me.”
Bradley Hardy, an associate professor at American University in Washington, D.C., who specializes in labor economics and economic instability, says this type of interruption at the early stage of a young person’s professional career can be challenging to navigate. Without the requisite resources and support network, Hardy says the disruption caused by the pandemic may dishearten some young workers and push their dreams out of reach.
“Some people stay on the path and they pretty much recover what they lost. But other people might get interrupted, maybe, for various reasons they don’t have the capacity or the resources to wait this out,” Hardy says.
The Looming Burden of Student Debt
One particularly important reason many young professionals may not have the resources to wait out this economic crisis is the high level of student debt they have undertaken.
For Aben and her fellow students, their annual tuition is much higher than the national average student debt, costing $52,000 a year. And as it became clear that they would not be able to attend most of the 2020-2021 school year in person, many students petitioned Northwestern for a tuition refund. Northwestern agreed to take $2,000 off their tuition.
Additionally, deferment of federal student loan payments and interest have been put in place, first by the President Donald Trump administration and continued until Sept. 30 of this year by the Joe Biden administration as a way to relieve some of the financial burden on students at this time.
However, according to Jonathan Aikman, an adjunct professor of finance at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, significant long-term risks await should the burden of rising student debt in the U.S. and other leading industrial countries go unaddressed.
“We can’t saddle the people with the least amount of resources with the most amount of debt,” Aikman says. “It will stifle business growth, innovation, the development of technology. Ultimately these feed into the larger economy and future GDP growth will be impacted negatively.”
An Uncertain Future For Many
Although there are some young workers who are prepared to wait this crisis out, many segments of the global population of young workers today may never bounce back. While their careers remain marked by uncertainty, the mounting debts will eventually come due, and the pressure to earn a living may force some to abandon their dreams.
Some experts say that the blend of high demand and limited opportunities for youth workers worldwide threatens to erase global progress against eliminating poverty. In a Brookings Institution blog post, authors Patrick Fine, Susan Reichle and Kristin Lord go a step further to describe the economic environment for young people as “a combustible recipe for civil unrest, mass migration and human misery.”
Other experts – at least in the U.S. context – say that now may be the best time for young workers to apply for a job.
Andy Challenger, senior vice president at the job placement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, says that the current labor market favors young workers as there are many adult workers who are sitting on the sidelines for various reasons, young workers are also less susceptible to the virus, and today’s youth workers are digital natives, he adds.
“I do think new graduates have a small window of opportunity to go out and fight hard for a job,” Challenger says. “New graduates are really familiar with technology and used to working remotely, and the world is tipping in favor of that.”
These realities have forced many young professionals such as Aben to take a more pragmatic approach to their careers focusing more on finding any opportunity – even if that means abandoning the pursuit of their dream job.
“I had to just get it together and pick myself up and tell myself that I need to be a good steward to the moment and try to apply to as many things I can and just continue to have faith,” Aben says.
“Because me panicking about it is not going to change the situation,” she adds.