In March 2020, music graduate student Grady Hayden was planning to audition for the Nashville Opera’s chorus. He hoped to perform with an opera after graduation and eventually become a voice professor. When COVID-19 halted the entertainment industry, Hayden, 24, chose to extend his studies at Belmont University and work towards a doctorate. He also found a job at a local signage company, work that helps him get by, but that is not related to his chosen field. 

“I was lucky they were able to keep me working,” Hayden said. “I was happy to have that. A lot of my friends weren’t able to keep their jobs.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted massive layoffs across the nation and state, but jobs for young adults in Tennessee have been hit particularly hard. For Tennesseans age 22 and younger, unemployment claims spiked by more than 19,600% in April 2020, with more than 44,000 people seeking benefits in that age group alone. That compares to a 2,100% increase in claims filed for all ages in Tennessee at the time. The next greatest impact was seen among 22-to 24-year-old Tennesseans.  

While the number of claims filed in Tennessee has dropped dramatically since last spring, the greater unemployment claim increases among young adults continued through 2020.

In addition to layoffs, some recruitment efforts that usually target college graduates slowed or stalled during the last year, limiting options for those finishing degrees. The shifting employment landscape for young Tennessee workers adds further uncertainty to career paths and earning trajectories in the years ahead. 

Grady Hayden at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Grady Hayden at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“Recessions have generally been very bad for young workers, particularly people coming out of school,” University of Tennessee economist Bill Fox said. “One of my really big fears is that the younger generation will bear a significant portion of the consequences of this because of the difficulty of finding the first job or getting employed quickly.”

College career centers urge creativity among students

For those who begin working during a recession, earnings and opportunities can be affected for several years. Great Recession graduates’ lower employment rate has extended beyond the economic recovery, according to a 2020 report from the University of California, Berkeley. 

“They often were paid less or they were under-placed relative to the job they might otherwise have been able to obtain,” Fox said. “What we found is they haven’t really recovered from being under-placed on the first job or from the time out of the workforce while they tried to find their first job.”

Antoinette Duke, interim director of Tennessee State University’s Career Development Center, said while hiring is still underway, some companies have had to pause efforts or delay internships that provide real work experience students have been preparing for. Most students rely on some federal grant or scholarship funds to cover school costs and missing out on the job market that previous graduates have experienced has been difficult for students financially. 

“This has been a very challenging time for our students. A lot of students count on these part-time positions and internships,” Duke said. “Financially, there is a struggle.”

There are recent graduates who are still looking for jobs that might have had more success in a normal year, and some have asked to participate in TSU job fairs as well, Duke said.

“We are encouraging them to stay vigilant, to stay prepared,” she said. 

Duke has also seen encouraging signs for students approaching graduation. Employer registration for TSU’s jobs fairs has more than doubled pre-pandemic levels, which Duke attributes to the ease of virtual recruiting as well as a greater focus on connecting with students from historically black colleges and universities. 

Beka Crocket, director of Middle Tennessee State University Career Development Center at Middle Tennessee State University, said she is still seeing business growth and job opportunities for students in Tennessee, with 2,400 jobs posted on the college’s job management platform in January, up from 1,600 jobs posted in May and June 2020. Several companies have brought back their internship programs this year after pausing them in 2020, and worker demand remains robust in education, sales, community and social services, health care and web engineering. 

Beka Crockett, director of Middle Tennessee State University Career Development Center. (Photo: MTSU.edu)
Beka Crockett, director of Middle Tennessee State University Career Development Center. (Photo: MTSU.edu)

“It may not be necessarily, for a lot of our students, exactly what they want to do, but it could be a foot in the door at the organization,” Crocket said. “We are really encouraging people to be creative in their search, regardless if they are a young person or not, knowing that where they land might not be forever. We also know people just need money to live.”

Crocket said her office called each graduate, more than 2,300 students, in June to check on them and to see if they could answer questions related to job searches. Some students said they had just begun their job search after getting through the spring semester, others reported delayed start dates for positions and a few graduates in hospitality said their offers had been rescinded.

“Everybody had high anxiety at that time,” Crocket said. “We wanted them to know we were here for them.”

Crocket said for those students whose careers have been affected by the pandemic, the setbacks are likely to delay success in their chosen field, not derail it. It could also prompt students to discover opportunities that suit them well, but that they may not have discovered otherwise. 

“A lot of industries had to hit pause when this happened,” Crocket said. “They will come back in new and different ways and, at that time, people can pivot.”

Jena DeMars, student success coordinator at Tennessee College of Applied Technology at Crossville, said she is still seeing steady demand from employers in fields that the college specializes in. The school, which offers 20-month certifications and diplomas, has added another class in practical nursing in January, given the needs in that field. 

“For the TCATs and what we do in the career and technical education field, these trades are in demand,” DeMars said. “Work is still going on in these particular fields. You are having homes built still. You are going to need someone to wire it, you are going to need an industrial maintenance tech, you are going to need a builder. Nursing is still in demand.”

Madison Fowler, 20, who attends  TCAT Crossville with a state-funded Tennessee Promise scholarship, studies surgical technology and she plans to graduate in July. With COVID-19 disrupting typical health care operations, Fowler had been worried about job prospects. 

“I was really scared I would have wasted a year of my life and money that I don’t really have on something that maybe wouldn’t work out for me,” she said. 

In late February, she was offered a position at Methodist Medical Center of Oak Ridge, Tenn., contingent on her passing her national exam.  “I feel relieved,” she said. “I feel really proud of myself, how far I came.”

  For what we do in the career and technical education field, these trades are in demand. You are having homes built still. You are going to need someone to wire it, you are going to need an industrial maintenance tech, you are going to need a builder.    – Jena DeMars, Tennessee College of Applied Technology at Crossville

Ashe Tuck, who heads sales training at Dell, said the tech company had smaller class sizes for its training programs in 2020 as the global economy stalled, but it was able to maintain its hiring pace overall. Dell did not rescind any offers and implemented its internship program virtually. 

“We are not on hold,” Tuck said. “We are moving forward.”

Tuck graduated from college in 2009, when the Great Recession was decimating the job market. She said she empathizes with students graduating during the pandemic, as her job offer in the music industry was rescinded the week she graduated and she had to move home instead.

“I feel like it set me back. It took me  a while to find a professional role,” she said. “It’s important we are continuing  with the promise of, ‘We have extended you a job offer, please come join us,’ and we are holding to that.”

COVID-19 cuts college head count at Tennessee public colleges

After several years of steady community college enrollment in Tennessee, boosted in part by the Tennessee Promise program that covers tuition costs, community college headcount was down by nearly 11% in Fall 2020, and it dropped by more than 4% at all public colleges and universities, according to a report and survey released by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission in January.

The survey showed about 30%  of respondents from Tennessee public community colleges and universities were likely to postpone graduation because of reasons related to COVID-19. More than 16% of Tennessee community college respondents withdrew from class. 

While many students have attended Tennessee community colleges with the intention of later moving to a four-year school, the Tennessee Promise program helped spur enrollment among those who never considered college, said Steven Gentile, chief strategy and policy officer for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. With the pandemic disrupting normal coursework, that could be enough to sway some from enrolling.

“Those students who are just on the edge of making that decision of whether to enroll or not maybe decided not to,” Gentile said. 

Community colleges also draw many adult learners and with many primary schools operating virtually, enrollment might be disrupted by child care or caregiving needs, he  said. 

Colleges tend to see greater enrollment during economic downturns, as students seek to use the time to gain more skills rather than spin their wheels in an unfruitful job market. But some students could be choosing to hold off on their education until they can take advantage of more meaningful, in-person classes, or they may want to avoid in-person courses because of the virus, Fox said. 

Attendance can also become more challenging when money is tight and transportation becomes more difficult. About 60% of Tennessee students responding to the THEC survey said their personal income was affected by the pandemic and 60 percent said their family’s income was affected by COVID-19.

A survey conducted by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission showed about 30%  of respondents from Tennessee public community colleges and universities were likely to postpone graduation because of reasons related to COVID-19. More than 16% of Tennessee community college respondents withdrew from class. 

“Typically, when it might be harder for younger people to get jobs, we fully expect enrollment to increase in the community college sector,” Gentile said. “This time is very different. Enrollment declined substantially. I am hopeful and anticipate this will be a delayed enrollment effect.”

A delayed enrollment would be a best-case scenario, Fox said. 

Higher incomes are aligned with higher education, with those with bachelor’s degrees earning 70 percent more than those who completed high school, based on median weekly earnings reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2019. During the pandemic, those with college degrees saw fewer job losses than those without college credits, according to a March report from the National Council on Compensation Insurance. 

“My fear is that it’s a worse situation, that some of them that would otherwise have gone to school never go back,” Fox said. “Life has moved on, they are doing something else. It’s these kinds of things that have been impacted by the pandemic that I am most concerned about.”

While overall enrollment has dipped, some Tennessee schools have seen an uptick in graduate school interest. For Hayden, extending graduate school made the most sense, as it has for many students in past recessions. Operas have shutdown nationally, offering few job prospects if he had graduated on time this year. 

“Even the Metropolitan Opera is struggling right now,” Hayden said. “I’m a  little concerned about long-term gig prospects for opera singers.”

Hayden had planned on obtaining a doctorate at some point, so he is adjusting the order of his career blueprint. He delayed classes that require singing, since Zoom has limited their effectiveness, and is focusing on more academic courses instead. 

“It’s shaped everything,” Hayden said of the coronavirus pandemic. “I will stay in school. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t know how I was going to support myself.”

(Featured photo: Aspiring opera singer Grady Hayden put his performance plans on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. He’s working at a signage company and pursuing and advanced degree. Photo: John Partipilo)