- November 15, 2021
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In February 2020, Somari Davis was excited to finish her senior year as a visual media arts major at Emerson College in Boston and move to Los Angeles by the summer. She had plans to intern at Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness company, and pursue a career in video production.
Instead, the 22-year-old moved back into her parents’ home in Ossining and finished her degree from her childhood bedroom.
“It felt like my independence was stifled entirely,” Davis recalled. ” Staying in my high school bedroom … it felt like I had taken three steps back as far as the independence and career focus I had in college. It was stifling.”
Davis graduated in May and began applying for media jobs, but her efforts felt futile, she said. She applied to over 100 jobs, she said, and rarely heard back.
“”You’re putting your resume out, you’re putting any and all experience you have out on the table, and it feels like you are going against a brick wall,” Davis said. “You’re just not getting any responses. You’re applying into an abyss, is what it felt like.”
Davis was one of many college graduates who started looking for their first jobs in an economy that was nearly unrecognizable compared to the year prior, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, new public health regulations like social distancing, mask-wearing and vaccination status complicated workplace cultures, job availability and the traditional workday.
In October 2020, only 69% of recent college graduates — or adults ages 20 to 29 who held a bachelor’s degree during the previous spring — were employed, compared to 78% of recent grads employed in October 2019, according to Pew Research Center. The labor force participation rate for recent college graduates — or the share of people employed or actively looking for a job — dropped from 86% to 79% during the same one-year period.
The job prospects have improved immensely since then, with labor shortages spurring companies to offer higher wages and benefits. The national unemployment rate for those with bachelor’s degree or higher was 2.5% in Sept. 2021, compared to 5.8% among those who didn’t continue past a high school diploma.
Still, many college grads found the 2021 job environment to be unexpectedly barren and confusing.
It was difficult to watch her peers get jobs while she struggled to find work, Davis said; “Even if it was as a COVID officer or something like that, it was still a job on a set. It was a hard time.”
This past July, Davis moved to California to work as a floater for the Gersh Agency, a talent firm based in Los Angeles and New York City.
“I think I’m way less naïve than I was, and I think if anything, my work ethic is way stronger,” she said about what the past year has taught her. “It’s stronger because we lost a year. I’m hungrier for more opportunities.”
For some recent college grads, the career opportunities they pursued before the pandemic became less desirable — or permanently altered — in the COVID era, leaving them searching for next steps.
Sarah Scotto wishes she’d known how much teaching would change in 2021 when she started her studies to become an educator five years ago.
“Honestly, you go into your career thinking it will be one way, and then it’s like you come out of college and it’s completely different. If I knew this is what it would look like, I might not have chosen this career,” said Scotto, 23 and a 2020 graduate from SUNY Cortland, adding that she believes personally, she would have still chosen to pursue education.
For as long as Scotto can remember, she envisioned kindergarten classes with small learning groups and dramatic play activities. But the kindergarten classes she’s taught over the past year and a half haven’t looked anything like that.
“Now it’s sitting in rows and looking at slides on a computer,” Scotto said. “It’s very dry, and having a five-year-old sit there and listen to that is hard.”
Scotto works as a COVID-permanent substitute teacher at Maple Hill Elementary School in Middletown, and said she didn’t have any education on how to teach remotely or use COVID-19 safety practices and procedures, other than a free, two-credit course added to her course load in late 2020.
She was supposed to have access to career days at the end of her senior year, which are intended to help students strengthen their resumes and interviewing skills. But COVID cancelled those plans, and without that support, Scotto said, it feels like she never graduated.
“There was no ending, no closing, no graduation ceremony,” she said. “I was just kind of put out into the world. I’m still nervous every day.”
It took a global pandemic for Alondra Hughes, a 27-year-old graduate assistant and masters student in student affairs administration at Binghamton University, to realize teaching wasn’t for her.
Hughes, a lifelong Endicott resident, was working as a substitute teacher for three Southern Tier school districts when the pandemic hit.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” she said. “That was a good way to find out that teaching just wasn’t for me. I really like kids, but in a classroom, you’re one person against 20 little monsters.”
After making it through 2020 by selling her own art on social media and driving for Doordash to pay the bills, Hughes found a career that she believes could be her true calling.
She spent this fall interning as an adviser in Binghamton University’s psychology department, helping students chart a timely course to graduation.
“Building connections, helping people figure out what they want to do — I didn’t know how much I loved it until I did it,” she said.
It took months to land a job in the field, despite widespread cries of worker shortages amid the pandemic. Hughes said she applied for eight different jobs and only heard back from three prospective employers.
She eventually landing a temporary and then a permanent advising position at BU.
“I’m so grateful I get to do (advising) professionally now,” she said.
Kristen “Kitt” Gabbard never expected to be a business owner at 26.
“I definitely didn’t think it would be happening this early on in my career and my life, and I wasn’t ready for it at all, but it worked out,” Gabbard, of Beacon.
Gabbard got a job as a massage therapist at The Dutchess Inn & Spa in Beacon after graduating in 2018, and was just beginning to establish herself there when the pandemic hit in 2020, she said.
“I had no idea what this meant for me in the long run,” Gabbard said. “I was really scared. I had just gotten started in my career which I was so excited for, but I didn’t do it for a while, and I didn’t know what that looked like or how long I would be out of that work.”
Gabbard began seeing a few clients in their homes over the summer of 2020, although she was worried about her exposure to COVID-19.
Months later, friends approached Gabbard about an opportunity to lease space at Locomotive Fitness Co., about 10 minutes northeast of her former workplace.
“I thought about the inn, and I didn’t know when we would reopen,” she said. “So I said yes, and the next day I bought a bucket of paint and got to work on the space.”
Since then, Gabbard has seen more than 230 clients this year at her business, Honey Care Massage.
“(The pandemic) completely fast tracked everything in a weird way. I went on autopilot,” she said. “In hindsight I’m like, ‘How did I do that?’ I feel very proud and grateful.”
Change came swifty for many young workers. The chaos the pandemic brought to services industries threw Southern Tier hairstylists Nicole Cooper and Mari Felo into a maelstrom of closures and changing regulations.
Cooper, 25, of Campville, and Felo, 29, of Binghamton, met at a Vestal salon in 2017, and were working there together in 2020. Both were laid off as the state declared beauticians and cosmetologists a “nonessential” part of the workforce.
After 10 weeks out of work, the pair were called to return in June, but the jobs were not the same.
Extra sanitization protocols and strict limits on salon capacity meant Cooper and Felo weren’t able to book as many appointments — a maximum of four clients a day, down from the usual seven to 10.
Cooper and Felo also found themselves faced with a backlog of appointments and events — namely hair and makeup arrangements for bridal parties, some of which had double- or triple-booked their postponed dates.
A year after returning to work, nearly to the day, the pair made another big change together. They started at Atyla Studio, another locally owned salon just across the Susquehanna River, in Endwell.
Atlya is a cooperative of stylists and estheticians working under the same roof, but operating as independent contractors — 1099 workers, for tax purposes.
They have control over their own scheduling, supplies and payments, which translates to better financial opportunity.
“It’s part of the natural progression of being a hairstylist: you want to be self-employed,” Felo said. “It was hard to navigate it all at first. No one had really shown us how to do this.”
Felo and Cooper have their own corner of the studio, separated from other chairs by a partial wall.
“We love it. We’re really lucky,” Felo said. “I didn’t feel like the new kid. It was so nice and easy coming here.”
Sarah Eames is the social justice and government accountability reporter for the Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin. You can contact her at Seames@Gannett.com.
Erin Nolan is an investigative reporter at the Times Herald Record in Middletown. You can reach her at Enolan@Gannett.com or on Twitter at @erin_nolan_.