'When is my career going to start?' College grads face one of the bleakest job markets in history

Many companies are rescinding internships and some are revoking job offers.

May 3, 2020, 5:10 AM

May is a month to celebrate college graduates and their achievements, wishing them well as they begin their career with a hard-earned degree under their belt.

Graduation, however, looks different this year. The coronavirus outbreak has caused universities across the country to postpone their annual ceremonies or conduct them virtually.

And afterward, graduates will face one of the bleakest job markets in history.

With more than 30 million Americans applying for unemployment benefits and many companies reducing internships and entry level positions, college grads are left facing an uphill battle just when they thought their future could finally begin.

Carly Rogers, a senior at the University of Florida, had hopes of jump-starting her public relations career upon graduation with an internship at Edelman in New York City.

After an extensive application and interview process, Rogers received a call from Edelman congratulating her on landing the role -- but also informing her that the summer internship program was canceled.

"It was just like a surreal moment, like, 'Oh, you did it,'" Rogers said. "That's a really hard conversation to have."

Rogers was hopeful that the position at Edelman would get her foot in the door, leading to a full-time position when the internship ended.

"It does concern me that, not only do I not have an internship now, but I also had a potential full-time offer coming," Rogers said. "It's additional stress."

Carly Rogers, graduating senior at the University of Florida
Carly Rogers

While Rogers said she still hopes to make it to New York City, she's currently at her parents' house in Florida, updating her LinkedIn profile to include her rescinded offer.

"I read that job recruiters are prioritizing those applicants who had really good internships and were given offers," Rogers said. "I might as well put it there to show people that I did get an offer and I did go through the process successfully already."

Following her virtual graduation on May 1, Rogers is searching for any public relations opportunities close by, as she has expenses to pay off and needs to save up before moving somewhere new.

"The job market after graduation is already filled with so many applicants, but the fact that over one million internship programs are estimated to be cut, and a lot of entry level positions are cut, it's even harder," Rogers said. "You still have the same amount of applicants, but now you have even less job postings and a lot more limitations to what you can do."

In addition to Edelman, organizations as varied as JetBlue, the National Institutes of Health and Yelp! have all done away with their summer 2020 internship programs.

Edwin Koc, the director of research, public policy and legislative affairs for the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), said that 20% of companies are revoking internship offers and about 4% are revoking full-time offers -- something that hasn't happened since the Great Recession.

"Ordinarily, you would not see employers revoking offers," Koc said. "Really, the last couple of years we didn't even bother asking the question because that was simply not going to be the case."

Christine Cruzvergara, vice president of higher education and student success at Handshake, a top platform for college students to find jobs and internships, says that about 30% of their juniors and seniors who accepted internships have had their offers rescinded.

"Over 50% of our students have student debt that they have to pay back," Cruzvergara said.

According to Glassdoor, internship hiring fell 39% year-over-year in April with declines across all industries. The hardest-hit sectors were travel and tourism, information technology and media and publishing.

Brittain Walton, graduating senior at Colorado State University
Brittain Walton

Brittain Walton, a senior at Colorado State University, accepted a sports marketing summer internship with Red Bull, but like Rogers his offer was rescinded when COVID-19 pandemic started to take a toll.

"Red Bull has been a company I've followed and been involved with for a while, and I knew they'd be a great fit automatically," Walton said. "This was more or less a dream role coming out of college for me as a sports marketing student."

Losing the position at Red Bull led Walton to contact the career center at CSU, a service he said he had not utilized during his entire four years at the university.

"I had two phone calls with them, talking through different options, making a list of companies that are hiring, creating a dream list and seeing if an introduction could be made," Walton said. "Using those existing resources, especially as a student, you kind of have got to take advantage of those while they last."

While staying connected with Red Bull is still one of Walton's top priorities, he's also seeking out other opportunities that could be a fit.

"I'm just staying involved with the industry, seeing what opportunities are out there and taking advantage of something, even if it's not directly what I was planning on doing," Walton said. "I don't want to waste a year of my career, but I think there's other ways to gain some experience."

Fortunately for recent graduates, many companies have found ways to maintain their internship positions. Koc said about 45% of employers have pivoted to make their internships virtual, including Microsoft, Google, and Twitter.

Cruzvergara, who called this a "win-win" for companies and students alike, says Handshake still has openings being posted every day in the areas of education, health care, government, technology, and nonprofits.

"Through our research, students who complete their profile at a very minimum -- they put in their geographic preferences, their industry interests and their industry role preferences -- are 80% more likely to get a message from an employer," Cruzvergara said. "That's huge."

And for recent grads like Walton who are struggling to find a position in a particular field, Koc's advice is to take something else, even if it's not in an area they would want to pursue long-term.

"It may not be the kind of job that you expected to get out of college, and it may be difficult the first couple of years," Koc said, "but if you show on your resume that you're active in doing something, then that's a positive."

This is exactly the route Alexus Baldwin, a senior at Hampton University, had to take. Baldwin was hoping to graduate in May and intern at communications consulting firm APCO in Washington, D.C., when she received notification that its summer internship program was canceled.

Alexus Baldwin, graduating senior at Hampton University
Alexus Baldwin

"It's affecting the whole class of 2020," Baldwin said. "A lot of us are walking around scratching our heads like, 'All right, what have we got to do? What's going to happen?'"

Making matters tougher: Although new jobs are being posted daily across LinkedIn, Handshake and Glassdoor, students may find some positions aren't actually available.

"I feel like some of them have an automatic job posting that they forget to take down," Baldwin said. "My mentor was telling me just because you see a job posting, it doesn't mean they're actually hiring."

Needing a job and having to act quickly, Baldwin ended up receiving and accepting a secretary position at a corporate office in Virginia. But with a journalism degree and a dream of becoming a producer, this isn't what Baldwin had envisioned for her first job out of school.

"Is my degree going to go to waste? When is my career going to start? There is no definite answer," said Baldwin. "I just hope that the opportunities I've applied for are there once this is all over."

With so much uncertainty about when the economy will rebound from this crisis, Koc worries that the pandemic might end up affecting next year's graduates as well.

"This is obviously a very, very unusual situation, and it's probably going to impact the class of 2020 substantially, particularly in their first year out," Koc said. "I'm a little concerned about what it might do to the class of 2021 if the economy doesn't come back really quickly."

What to know about the coronavirus:

Tune into ABC at 1 p.m. ET and ABC News Live at 4 p.m. ET every weekday for special coverage of the novel coronavirus with the full ABC News team, including the latest news, context and analysis.