unemployment graph

At the height of the pandemic, the unemployment rate among recent college graduates was 13.2%.


Taylor Jordan (’20) was in the middle of an internship at Red Light Management, an independent music management company that represents artists like the Dave Matthews Band, Luke Bryan and Chris Stapleton, when the COVID-19 pandemic halted what could’ve became a life-changing career opportunity. Since then, the JMU alumna has applied to over 300 jobs with no luck.

College graduates in the class of 2020 were thrust into a floundering economy and a country facing months of quarantine and layoffs. In a situation strikingly similar to those who graduated during the 2008 recession, some graduates have struggled to find a job as the availability of positions has decreased. Some companies are finding it difficult to support their current staff, let alone hire new employees.

“I kept applying, kept trying, and nothing really majorly hit,” Jordan said. “I did have a couple interviews lined up here and there at the very front. But then, when people I think realized the pandemic wasn’t exactly going away, they kind of put the lockdown on things.”

Despite this outlook, Laura Hickerson, associate director for employer relations at JMU’s University Career Center, said plenty of employers are looking for new hires. Hickerson’s office provides advice about employment and graduate school.

Since last March, Hickerson said she’s noticed an increase in alumni reaching out to the center, especially as some internships were canceled or moved online. Students who have majors or minors that require internships had to “be creative” to find virtual opportunities. 

According to data collected by the New York Federal Reserve, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in March 2020, the unemployment rate among recent college graduates was only 3.8%. At the peak of the pandemic’s toll on the job market, that rate was 13.2%. 

Last spring, Mayme Todd (’20), a graduated theatre major specializing in costume design, said she watched listings for theater costume design slowly disappear. In May, she said the opportunities in her field were virtually nonexistent except for those requiring a master’s degree.

“The theater that’s being produced is done over Zoom, where they’ll just have the actors provide their own [costumes],” Todd said. “So, there’s not really much of a market for someone to sew and someone to costume design and to do big shows when there isn’t an audience for it.”

Careers in the performing arts have been severely hit by the pandemic, as reflected in the rate of underemployed college graduates with that degree. The New York Federal Reserve defines underemployment as “working in a job that typically does not require a bachelor’s degree.” Currently, 73% of students who studied criminal justice are underemployed, followed by those in the performing arts and leisure and hospitality industries. 

Many graduates have turned to jobs outside of their field. At the beginning of the pandemic, Todd worked as a nanny when a friend recommended she apply for an internship with Launch Gift Cards (LGC), a digital commerce company. 

She felt she wasn’t qualified for the job but applied anyway. Last August, she was hired as an intern at LGC. In November, she became a full-time employee working in e-commerce.

“I think one of the biggest things that held me back was that I thought I wasn’t going to be qualified for things,” Todd said. “I almost didn’t apply for this job; I almost didn’t send in my resume because I was like, ‘There’s absolutely no way [I get the job].’”

Though she said she’s a planner, Todd hasn’t decided if she’ll attempt to find a job in theater in the future. 

As of July, the New York Federal Reserve reported that the top two majors facing high rates of unemployment are physics and mass media. Other top majors affected include political science, computer science, sociology and fine arts.

With a degree in media arts and design (SMAD), few opportunities to pursue music industry marketing and student loan payments looming, Jordan took the opportunity to use her design skills from SMAD to start a small business creating home decor and custom T-shirts. She also revamped her resume and learned new skills through LinkedIn Learning tutorials.

“I wanted to keep, like, trying to better myself, I guess, and keep learning,” Jordan said. “I didn’t really want to get stagnant, even though nothing was really happening.”

Although most people, regardless of education level, are feeling the effects of the pandemic on their careers, those with a college degree or higher still have lower unemployment rates than those with less education, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With increasing COVID-19 vaccinations, Hickerson said “we’re seeing a light of the end of the tunnel now.” Hickerson recommends those searching for jobs to remove location filters that might limit their prospects for remote work. 

“Don’t give up hope — there are a lot of good jobs out there,” Hickerson said. “On [JMU] Handshake, we have over 8,000 jobs, and new ones get added every day.”

Contact Ryann Sheehy at sheehyrl@dukes.jmu.edu and Jessica Kronzer at kronzejf@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.