COVID-19 scuttles jobs, internships for Iowa’s college students

COVID-19 scuttles jobs, internships for Iowa’s college students

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Editor’s note: This article is a collaboration between IowaWatch and Simpson College. Five seniors — Gunnar Davis, Daria Mather, Tanner Krueger, Ann Haakonson and Jonathan Facio — worked as a team on this report as part of a senior seminar class led by Mark Siebert, a Simpson professor.

Paige Marsh went through five interviews before getting a job offer from a national insurance company, headquartered in Des Moines, back in January.

“I have been in touch with the company every month since I signed my offer letter,” Marsh, a senior business administration major at Waverly’s Wartburg College, said. “And then I just got the call about the company freezing all new hires until 2021.”

College students, like Marsh, who are ready to hit the job market, now find positions hard to find or internships have been postponed or canceled.

Paige Marsh.JPG

Paige Marsh, at right with Gov. Kim Reynolds, is among Iowa college students facing a tough job market because of COVID-19.

The jump to the “real world” is typically full of anxiety and uncertainty for seniors — and this year is no different with COVID-19 unsettling the job market. The unemployment rate in April 2020 increased by 10.3 percentage points to 14.7%, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. All major industries, particularly leisure and hospitality, suffered losses, the bureau said.

Over 163,000 students are expected to graduate this spring from the state’s four-year universities and colleges, according to the Iowa College and University Enrollment Report in 2017. IowaWatch spoke with students from Des Moines Area Community College, Drake University, Loras College, Simpson College, the University of Iowa and Wartburg College about job prospects and internships. Business leaders and faculty also lamented the shift in the state’s economy.

Situations like Marsh’s are not uncommon during the pandemic, said Sarah Clayton, a career center coordinator at DMACC. She helps students who are dealing with slow job markets.

“It does seem like there are a lot of businesses that are either putting things on hold or not actively recruiting the way that they would be recruiting aggressive right now for grads,” Clayton said.

Job hunting

Prospects for jobs and internships were good until a few months ago, said Mike Ralston, president of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, which represents more than 1,500 employers and 330,000 workers. Ralston noted Iowa had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the U.S. until recently.

“Since the virus hit, many employers are taking a step back from hiring. Because the financial impact of the disease is not known at this time — what is known is that it will be significant. Many businesses have halted new hiring, capital expenditures, and marketing programs. But that is not the case for all employers,” Ralston said.

The 2008-09 Great Recession market resembles today’s. One of the most widely recognized indicators of a recession is higher unemployment rates. The national rate of unemployment peaked at 10% in June 2009.

That rate is now at 14.7% nationally.

Businesses have responded by making cuts, including furloughs and layoffs for employees at media outlets and hotels, said career experts.

Debbie Marshall is the owner of Thrive Consulting, which offers career coaching and job services in the Des Moines area. She said the layoffs will only add more competition to an already competitive job market, as many laid-off workers will be looking for jobs alongside college graduates.

“Once they (businesses) ramp back up, they’re not going to be able to call everybody back all at once, so the people that aren’t called back right away, they’re also going to be in the job market,” Marshall said. “This makes it incredibly hard for college students because they’re out there trying to get jobs with little or no experience.”

Debbie Marshall

Debbie Marshall of Thrive Consulting says college students today have an advantage over other more experienced job candidates.

Marshall did say that college students do have one advantage over more experienced job candidates.

“They don’t need the same amount of money that say, someone who’s been in that job for five years who may have a family now is going to have to have,” Marshall said. “College students typically can start out at the lower end of the pay scale, which is a real benefit for the companies.”

According to the summer of 2019 salary survey by National Association of Colleges and Employers, the average starting salary for 2018 graduates with a bachelor’s degree was $50,944.

Some career services faculty members said it’s tough for hiring managers to properly interview candidates through online meetings instead of face-to-face interviews and site visits.

Jeff Roberts, a career services coordinator at Loras College, says retail, food and supply chain management are doing better than others in terms of hiring.

Internship struggles

While a select number of businesses thrive, most are struggling. Bobbi Sullivan, director of career development at Simpson, said that internships have taken a massive blow.

“Students completing spring 2020 internships or research programs are currently the most impacted,” Sullivan said.

NACE conducted a quick poll of 283 employers in April and found 26% are going ahead with internship programs as planned.

Brandi Miller, a senior finance major at the University of Iowa, transitioned to an online internship with Aegon during the shutdown.

Brandi Milleriowawatch.JPG

Brandi Miller, a senior finance major at the University of Iowa, was able to work an internship from home for the insurance company, Aegon. 

NACE found that 12% of those offering internships for the summer are revoking them.

Molly MacDuff, a senior creative writing and literature double major at Loras College, was set to begin the Disney College Program in Florida this summer, but Disney suspended the program.

She said she’s going to have to look at other options since she will graduate in May and can’t afford to wait another year for a job.

“I don’t like the fact that I don’t have something figured out. But, you know, we have to go with what we have at the moment.”

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Molly MacDuff, a Loras College student pictured during an interview, planned to spend the summer at the Disney College Program. It was suspended when the parks closed because of COVID-19. 

What next?

Keep your eye on the bigger picture, said Ralston. Transportation firms, grocery chains, national retail chains are hiring, he said, and Iowa manufacturers will hire soon.

“While perhaps some of your options are not available, there is much opportunity to be found among Iowa employers of all kinds.”

Olivia Bruce, a Drake University student, was able to get an internship at Hy-Vee after her Best Buy internship was canceled.

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Drake University student Olivia Bruce and Hy-vee vice president of communications Tina Potthoff meet via Zoom during her internship with the grocery store chain.

The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch is a non-profit, online news website that collaborates with news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.

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