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Pandemic Economy: 2020 Grads Face the Good, the Bad, and the Unexpected

May 21, 2020

CU Denver’s 2020 graduates have already dealt with significant disappointment due to coronavirus, not the least of which is the inability to attend commencement in person. The pandemic is also significantly affecting the economy at the moment they should begin new careers. We can, however, learn from the experience of our 2008 ­ – 2009 alumni, who entered the job market during the Great Recession. 

First, the Bad News

The numbers speak for themselves. According to a CNBC article titled “What College Graduates Must Know Entering the Job Market Post-Coronavirus,” nearly 4 million students will graduate from college in the United States in the 2019 – 2020 academic year. The article states, “On the heels of historic jobless claims, they [college graduates] will attempt to enter the workforce at one of the most precarious economic environments since the Great Recession.” 

How precarious? On May 8, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released an employment situation summary citing the two-month total for unemployment claims due to the health crisis rose to 36.5 million. A recent Forbes article concludes that 2020 college graduates “may very well have unprecedented career anxiety.”

young woman wearing face mask
While the post-coronavirus economy is suffering, 2020 college graduates may ultimately see some good results in terms of how the pandemic affects work-life balance.

What is the Scarring Effect?

Like students who graduated from college during the Great Recession, 2020 alumni are entering a difficult job market. And even those who are able to get work will be at a disadvantage. A New York Times article from late March explains why: “Historically, college students who graduate into a recession have settled for lower-paying jobs at less prestigious companies than people who finished college even a year earlier. Economists have found that the impact of that bad luck can linger for as long as 10 or 15 years, leading to higher unemployment rates and lower salaries—a phenomenon known as ‘scarring’.”

Associate Professor of Economics Hani Mansour, PhD, stresses that students should put the scarring effect in perspective. “This does not mean a life of poverty; it simply means that, on average, their lifetime earnings will be lower compared to not graduating in a recession,” he said.

Graduates who want to lessen the possible impact of scarring can focus on choosing the right employer: “There is evidence that starting a career in larger firms increases lifetime income, likely because large employers are better able to provide training and options for skill development,” Mansour said. Another option is to delay entering the workforce by investing in skills through graduate school. “However, choose your graduate program carefully, with an eye on future jobs,” Mansour advises.

Now, the Good News

There are a few fields that will benefit from the current financial crisis, and social distancing may lead to better life-work balance. Sue Wyman, Director of Business Career Connections at CU Denver’s Business School, points out that “the investment services sector is on fire, currently hiring hundreds of new college graduates in Colorado.” And CNBC offers some good news too: “The rise in telecommuting and remote work likely means opportunities for college graduates with the right set of skills.”

If social distancing continues, workers may find their work-life balance actually improves, as companies institute more flexible hours and hybrid work-at-home/office schedules. In fact, some companies are discussing the benefits of four-day work weeks. Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand, recently suggested employers consider this, along with other flexible work options, in order to improve employee mental health and encourage domestic tourism. Fast Company reports, “Companies that have adopted four-day workweeks have found, repeatedly, that productivity doesn’t decline even when people work fewer hours.”

Associate Professor Yosef Bonaparte, PhD, who teaches finance at CU Denver’s Business School, provides other possible good news. “June is the month for which the U.S. economy will be at 70% capacity,” he said. Taking into account fiscal and monetary policies enacted by congress, along with cheaper oil prices (distinct from oil futures), Bonaparte projects “we will be back faster than many people think.”

rainbow raft on water
The pandemic could give recent college graduates something many employers want—resilience.

Silver Linings, Rainbows, and Unicorns

We asked our faculty and staff to offer 2020 graduates a silver lining. “To use the military’s term,” CU Denver Distinguished University Professor Wayne Cascio, PhD, said, “we live in a VUCA world—it’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.” If that doesn’t sound like rainbows and unicorns, that’s exactly the point. Students graduating during this crisis have the potential to offer employers one vital advantage.


Mansour sums it up beautifully: “The pandemic provides an opportunity for students to help others, gain experience in domains they would not have anticipated, explore new careers, go to graduate school, and mature in ways they would have never imagined.”

Job Search Tips

For now, it’s important that 2020 college graduates use strategy in their job search. We asked some of CU Denver’s business and economics faculty and staff to offer helpful tips.

Perfect Your Resume & LinkedIn Profile

  • Wyman emphasizes that resumes and LinkedIn profiles should be “in tip-top shape.” One small typo can eliminate a candidate, especially during a tough economy. Resumes and cover letters should be tailored to the specific job you’re applying for, in fact. If a job posting includes “experience managing a diverse group of people,” your resume should feature the verb “manage,” and both your resume and your cover letter should explain your specific managerial experience. For example, it could state, “Managed up to 10 team members from diverse backgrounds.”

Practice for Interviews

  • Job candidates should practice answering interview questions. “They can practice on our Big Interview video platform or with us via Zoom,” Wyman said. Graduates outside the Business School can contact the Career Center at LynxConnect. Practicing for video interviews adds another element of preparation for job applicants, and they should know how to navigate video conferencing features, including adding a professional background.

Expand Your Search

  • Mansour, who graduated with his PhD in 2009, applied to more than 90 positions. His advice? “Do an expansive job search, even for jobs you do not think you necessarily qualify for or jobs that you would not have applied for otherwise.” Consider part-time jobs, jobs outside your desired geographic location, and jobs that aren’t ideal. “At this stage, graduating students should focus on accumulating experience in the labor market,” he said. Wyman agrees. “Careers are fluid and graduates often end up in different roles and industries than what they planned and imagined … Movement between roles is generally the rule rather than the exception,” she said.

Become a Creative Problem-Solver

  • Cascio, an expert in human resource management, thinks graduates can create a position where one doesn’t currently exist. “Employers may not have jobs, but they always have problems,” he said. “A new grad should research deeply a prospective employer’s operations and business model. If that grad can identify a problem that the employer is facing, along with how he or she can help solve it, the new grad is more likely to be hired.”