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 Wartburg College,  said. “And then I just got the call about the company freezing all new hires until 2021.”

She will continue to search for work in the meantime. 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.

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 percent, 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 their 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 Sara Clayton, a career center coordinator at DMACC. She helps students who are dealing with slow job markets stay ready.

“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.


For example, in the industry of financial activities, 83,000 jobs have been lost in the last six months.

Prospects for jobs and internships were good until a few months ago, said Mike Ralston, president of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, a statewide business organization which represents more than 1,500 employers and 330,000 workers. Ralston noted how 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 percent in June 2009. 

That rate is now at 14.7 percent nationally.

Businesses have responded by making cuts, including furloughs and layoffs for employees at media outlets or 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.

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

“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.”

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 (NACE), the average starting salary for 2018 graduates with a bachelor’s degree was $50,944. 

Some career services faculty members said that 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 some industries, such as retail, food and supply chain management, are doing better than others in terms of hiring.

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

“We’ve seen a number of organizations continue to make hiring decisions,” Roberts said. “So people are looking at it and say, ‘Hey we anticipate being in business and being fully functional and active when you get out three months from now.’”

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. “While some students have been able to continue their work remotely, others have had to switch to alternative projects or conclude their experiences.”

NACE conducted a quick poll of 283 employers in April and found 26 percent are going ahead with internship programs as planned. Most others have either reduced the length of the internships or moved them entirely online.

Brandi Miller, a senior finance major at the University of Iowa, was one of the lucky students who was able to transition during the pandemic to work an internship from home. She said the insurance company, Aegon, worked hard to ensure she would be able to continue her experience.

“It has definitely been a lot, working from home,” Miller said. “My team is very collaborative and social. I am used to talking to people throughout the day, so that has been different.”

Not all students have been able to shift internships. NACE found that 12 percent of those offering internships for the summer are revoking them.

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. Photo courtesy of Molly MacDuff

Molly MacDuff, a senior creative writing and literature double major at Loras College, was accepted into the Disney College Program, a work and education program for college students. She was set to begin on June 1 at Disney World in Florida, but will not. Disney suspended the program because it’s not sure when people will be allowed back at the parks, closed on March 15 due to the pandemic. Because of the suspension, MacDuff will have to re-apply for a program.

“I’d be able to apply again for the following summer and semester, if I could turn in the same application, but I would still have to go through that interview process again,” MacDuff said.

MacDuff 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.”

What should college students do?

Mike Ralston

Keep your eye on the bigger picture, said Ralston, as the current situation will not last. He noted some employers — transportation firms, grocery chains, national retail chains such as Wal-Mart and Target and more — are hiring. He said Iowa manufacturers, one of the biggest industry sectors in the state, will hire soon. 

“Even if business has fallen off due to COVID-19, most industry analysts see a return to increased production very soon,” Ralston said. He noted: “If you are a graduating student ready to enter the job market, be hopeful. 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, has experienced the ups and downs of the job market. 

Her original plan was working for Best Buy this summer. Then the electronics retailer announced it was not having internships. She began to reach out to her network of contacts and a mentor contacted nine companies on her behalf. 

Then, he made one more call, Bruce said, which put her in touch with Tina Potthoff, Hy-Vee’s senior vice president of communications. “From there, I called Tina and after we spoke, she offered me an internship on the spot over the phone,” Bruce said. 

“When Olivia called me, she had all the qualities and characteristics that I look for in an intern at Hy-Vee. And, I immediately knew we needed to have her be a part of our team,” said Potthoff.

The plan is for Bruce to work remotely from her parents’ home in Lakeville, Minn., or from her place in Des Moines after two days of on-site training. 

She will learn via one-on-one phone calls, conference calls and Zoom meetings, Potthoff said, and Bruce will help the team with contactless community giveaway events and other public relations-related events.

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.
Photo courtesy of Tina Potthoff

Potthoff says networking is essential for college graduates seeking work. 

“This connection that’s been made truly shows the power of networking and having a mentor to help guide you through certain moments in life,” she said.

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 College professor. IowaWatch Executive Director Suzanne Behnke met with the class and edited the article.

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