Graduating into a recession — How to avoid a career-long setback

If you’re graduating from college or otherwise entering the job market, in this year of pandemic, you might have heard about the lifetime of hardships that often plagues recession-era graduates.

If not, you can read this summation of the research. The findings suggest that as a whole, the Class of 2020 will suffer substantially lower earnings, fewer advancement opportunities and even more serious health issues for decades after the economy recovers.

Here, however, we offer research-backed advice for avoiding that fate. Remember, those study findings are just averages from a variety of experiences. Following are five broad strategies to escape the average.

Prioritize advancement over prestige

That enviable job at a top firm might not be feasible now — even if you’ve excelled at all the prerequisites. Dominant companies tend to freeze entry-level hiring during slumps, even in far less depressed economies than this one.

A lot of smaller companies don’t have that luxury. They can’t run the business well without filling vacant positions. These places are golden opportunities for, pardon the term, go-getters to prove they can handle responsibilities beyond what new degrees and youth suggest. Studies show that managers who begin their careers during recessions generally become CEOs more quickly, but at smaller firms.

That off-brand job probably won’t pay nearly as much as the one your classmate started in 2019. Take it anyway. Become indispensable. Played well, you might make your career more esteemed and lucrative in the end.

Jump often

That lower paying first job is a key reason lifetime earnings for your Class of 2020 probably will be a lot less than cohorts graduating in good times. Your pay raises are likely to be about the same size or smaller than those luckier peers, especially in the early years when the economy is weak. Your wages, even if you didn’t spend months or years jobless, might not catch up.

To escape perpetual wage depression, recession graduates need to rise through the ranks quickly. Wage increases are biggest when job titles change. Often, the biggest gains come from jumping to another firm. Workers who change employers every few years, especially early in their careers, make significantly more money on average than more loyal employees. Staying with an employer more than five years could decrease your potential salary at the next job.

You don’t have to have a 10-year career plan right now. But be aggressive about finding and pursuing advancement opportunities everywhere, even when you’re relieved to have a job.

Go to grad school in a lucrative field

We know, you’ve been advised to go to grad school and wait for the job market to recover. In most economic downturns, that starts happening within a few years, tops. But this is no ordinary economic downturn. No one knows when the U.S. economy will be fully open for business again, or whether more waves of coronavirus will put the job market repeatedly on hold.

Pursuing higher ed is generally good advice. But don’t go into debt for an advanced degree in your depressed, modestly paying industry just because you’re out of options. If you want to go to grad school, get a degree that will position you for a field that ordinarily pays better.

People in high-paying professions make out best in recessions, even if their industries also are suffering. While recession-starters have lower than normal wage averages across industries, the disparities are far less in fields that usually have high wages.

Get schooled in something marketable

It’s a great time to learn a new skill, and you don’t have to go back to college to do it. There is plenty of short, free and cheap instruction online, often from professionals. Ideally, you’ll find a quick tutorial on something that makes you more marketable inside and out of your chosen industry.

For example, spend a week or so with Codeacademy’s introductory HTML, CSS and Bootstrap courses to learn to build websites. That’s a valuable skill in any business. Or get certified in graphics software that’ll make you and your communications degree more attractive to employers. Browse professional organizations, LinkedIn Learning, Kahn Academy and YouTube Learning for ideas. Even if the skill you add isn’t a fit for your current or next employer, they might be impressed by your willingness to take on new material.

Follow the money, not the degree

Who can afford to pay you in this mother of all economic messes? Grocery stores, streaming services, delivery companies, Small Business Administration lenders, online schools and manufacturers of essential goods, to name a few employers. These are great places to target in a job search now, regardless of whether you majored in political science or hospitality management.

You might have looked at your skills and tried to match them with thriving industries outside your intended field. Sometimes this exercise is more revealing when it’s flipped: Identify the thriving company, look at every possible career there, then scour your experience to find useful skills for any of them. Then do the same for businesses that are suppliers to that healthy target. You could find employers more compelled by your summer job, hobby or class electives than the specific major on your college degree.

Dee Gill writes for