For the millions of people in the job market during this COVID-19 pandemic, the task is daunting: Find work in a historically bad economy.
The class of 2008 understands the problem well. They lived it, trying to join the workforce during the Great Recession.
“We’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices that a lot of people probably aren’t used to,” said Christopher Brown, a 2008 University of South Florida graduate.
At the height of the recession, in 2010, the unemployment rate for young people hit a record-high 19.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Workers like Brown who found jobs still faced challenges different than prior generations. They were more likely to settle for smaller paychecks and less likely to risk jumping to other, better-paying jobs as the recovery crawled along, according to Brookings Institute economist Gary Burtless.
COVID-19’s long-term economic effects won’t be known for years. And because the pandemic upended everything, soon-to-be graduates have had to focus more on finding housing and finishing school virtually than securing jobs.
“Career education and career services are on the low end of the totem pole for these students,” said Christian Garcia, the associate dean and executive director of the University of Miami’s Toppel Career Center.
But when employment rises on their priority lists, they can look to Great Recession graduates for perspective. The Tampa Bay Times spoke with 10 of them to reflect on the job-hunting challenges they faced a dozen years ago.
Their advice: Broaden your search. Expand your network. Invest in yourself. Reset your expectations. And, most of all, remember that this, too, shall pass.
Curtiss Gibson, 40, nonprofit fundraising, New York
Gibson was the first college graduate in his family, earning an English degree from USF. He wasn’t picky where he landed. Florida. New York. Illinois. Wherever.
“I needed any job,” Gibson said.
The Clearwater native sent out at least 147 resumes — and got three serious looks. A lifestyle magazine publisher in New York hired him as an editorial assistant for $30,000 a year.
That November, the firm cut a quarter of the staff and froze wages. The magazine kept Gibson. Four months later, his son was born.
“Everyone had to deal with the fact that they’re stuck with their salary, and that person in the cube next to you is gone now, so you do their job. It’s absolutely a wild amount of stress.”
Gibson left, landing a job in fundraising at the New York Botanical Garden. But he’s feeling the stress again, this time from a different vantage point.
Two weeks after Gibson hired a woman from Philadelphia, the pandemic shut everything down. Now, her future is at risk.
“I see the impact on her that a lot of people felt in 2008. I have to remember: I did not create the virus. I did not do this. But I feel, like, horrible, absolutely terrible having to tell her.”
Jordan McDonald, 35, information technology, Tampa
The Plant City native started a job with business consultant Accenture soon after graduating from the University of Florida with an industrial engineering degree.
Then the economy collapsed. McDonald outlasted the layoffs and survived the do-more-with-less culture. But there are still emotional scars.
“I saw senior partners getting let go. These are men and women who had devoted their whole careers to this company. That was a big lesson learned for me, I think, just in terms of companies aren’t necessarily going to be loyal to you when things get bad.”
To prepare for that, McDonald advises the next wave of jobseekers to focus on expanding their network and gaining new skills until the economy recovers.
He’s also trying to keep a broader perspective. Things could always be worse. He still has his job at Tampa Electric. But it’s hard not to see this as another hit to millennials, those born from the early 1980s to the late 1990s.
“I saw a funny meme,” said McDonald, who has a 4-year-old child. “For our generation, when we were sort of coming of age in high school, 9/11 happened. When we were graduating college, the Great Recession happened. Then when we’re all starting families, the pandemic happens.”
Lara Goldstein, 33, advertising, Miami
Goldstein was apprehensive after graduating with her mass communications degree from USF, but she found a job quickly at a TV production company in Apopka.
The work was freelance, with no set hours, salary or benefits. And after about a year, the company went on hiatus.
“It was tough, because they kept telling you, ‘Don’t get another job, we’ll have work.'”
Goldstein stayed loyal. She worked as a bartender to get by and took the sporadic production days when they were available.
But she couldn’t wait forever. Goldstein left for a six-month production job in Miami, moving back in with her parents while still paying rent at an unused apartment in Apopka.
“Everyone expects young people to get a job, pay their dues and move on to bigger and better things. At a certain point, don’t you want stability?”
A 2013 survey by the Federal Reserve Board’s Division of Consumer and Community Affairs found that 67 percent of young workers preferred steady employment to higher pay.
Goldstein did, too. She abandoned her production goals to get into advertising — similar work, but with commercials instead of TV shows.
Almost 10 years later, she’s still there.
Gregory Gibbs, 30, teacher, Largo
Gibbs entered the workforce straight out of Apopka High School and worked at GameStop until he was laid off in 2010.
By then, he was preparing to study secondary education at USF. But he still needed money, and retailers weren’t hiring.
His delayed pursuit of teaching shapes the advice he would give soon-to-be graduates.
“Explore many different types of certification programs and remember that college is not the only path that encourages a successful life. There are many ways to achieve your goals despite the one-sided view of our educational system.”
Jennifer Perez, 44, photography, Jacksonville
Perez entered the job market after graduating from the University of Central Florida.
Freelance photography wasn’t steady, so she cobbled together odd jobs, juggling three at one point to get by. She even snapped photos of tourists at an alligator farm — something she never imagined doing.
“You have to get creative."
Eventually, it all paid off. She landed a full-time photography job in 2012 and has been doing it ever since.
Hannah Goodwin, 33, fashion, Tampa
Goodwin moved in with her parents in Houston after earning her communications degree from Virginia’s Washington and Lee University in 2009. An internship at Anthropologie didn’t lead to a job, so she expanded her search. Two months later, she had a fashion internship in New York — at a company that folded in 2010.
Her connections led to a job at a start-up where she has worked for the past nine years. She moved to Tampa last year.
Goodwin stayed in the industry because she liked it, but also because she remembered how hard it was to get a job in the first place. Starting over would have been tough, just as it would be now.
“Unfortunately, now is not really the time to be so picky."
Timothy Van Emden, 30, engineering, Maryland
Without any major marketable skills, Van Emden didn’t see a lot of job opportunities when he graduated from George Jenkins High School in Lakeland. That’s why he enlisted in the Army Reserve.
“It taught me a tangible skill and added to my resume."
He works as a system integrator/engineer in Maryland and has this advice: Don’t get hung up on locations, titles or salaries.
“If you want $65,000 and the job offered $60,000, take the job. The $5,000 will come quickly.”
Ruan Cox, 34, healthcare, Tampa
After studying biology and biotechnology at the University of Florida, Cox thought he would “get scooped up immediately” at a lab somewhere.
But employers wanted lower-risk workers they wouldn’t need to train, not new graduates. Some jobs he considered paid only $10 an hour.
So Cox decided to delay his career by investing in himself. He fast-tracked his plan for graduate school.
“School was just a safer option than entering the job market."
Five years later, he had a Ph.D. in molecular medicine from USF.
“I think I was a little bit jaded," said Cox, now a development manager at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. “You spend this money or you get loans … then you come out and you can’t find a job. It’s very demoralizing.
“It did work out for me, but until it did, it was a very humbling experience.”
Corbin deNagy, 33, higher-education finance, Tallahassee
DeNagy studied finance at Florida State University with the goal of becoming an investment banker in Tampa or Jacksonville. He knew the crash made that impossible, but he didn’t realize how hard it would be to find any job.
After a few months, he became an accounting associate at Florida State University — a job that required only a high school diploma.
“When you’re thinking about the finance degree … ‘I’m going to work in banking, I’m going to make a lot of money.' Now, you’re making $25,100. But it paid the bills.”
DeNagy has a familiar story, said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. College graduates in the Great Recession often were underemployed. Only 42 percent of them worked in their field of study, the Federal Reserve Board study said.
Instead of complaining, deNagy got to work. When his supervisor left less than a year later, he took her spot. Now he’s the finance director for FSU’s College of Human Sciences.
“I just went in and tried to prove myself. You have to put your head down and start working, whether you think the job is beneath you or whatever. You just work hard.”
Christopher Brown, 33, marketing, Brandon
Brown’s parents weren’t sure about the offer he received not long after graduating from USF.
You’re going to move all the way to Miami for a job in sales at a cruise line?
Brown didn’t see many options.
“If I didn’t, it could have been six months, a year of no paycheck, trying to fight for the same handful of jobs everyone else is fighting for."
He made it work.
Brown quickly realized that the cruise line’s sales script was too formulaic for him, so he ditched it to focus on building connections — what he learned to do as a marketing major. While his colleagues printed thank-you notes, Brown wrote his cards by hand.
“You had to put that extra work in, especially in 2009, 2010."
It took three years, but Brown finally got a marketing job in Tampa. Now, in the face of another economic collapse, Brown is vulnerable, again.
He does side work as a travel agent at a time when no one wants to travel. His marketing portfolio in Brandon includes a pair of Chick-fil-A restaurants.
“They’re doing fine … but if we shut down, what happens?”
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