The bold college try: UNR grads share stories of struggle trying to find work in a shaky job market
Erik Reiner had adventurous plans after he graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno in the spring of 2020. They included: flying with a buddy to Vietnam; touring the country on motorcycles for a month; returning to the states and (maybe) relocating to Los Angeles; and exploring the L.A. art scene. At some point, he figured, maybe he would get a job in marketing (his degree).
Reiner was in no rush to start his “real world” career. Jobs weren’t going anywhere. The economy was strong. He had time.
When he graduated, however, those plans were axed by the coronavirus pandemic. The economy was in the tank. Thousands of companies had gone bust. Millions of Americans had lost their jobs. Many of those still employed were now working from home, cooped up in quarantine. International air travel during a global health crisis? Not even an option.
Which is why, more than half a year later, Reiner is in his apartment in North Reno, sitting at his WFB (work-from-bedroom) desk and answering phone calls as a product support specialist for a local plumbing supply company.
“I take phone calls for eight hours a day,” said Reiner, who started the position in August.
‘Any job I could find’
Truth is, Reiner doesn’t even remember applying for the job. After the COVID-19 recession hit and Reiner’s post-grad travel plans were scrapped, the UNR grad poured himself into job searching. Craigslist. Indeed. Glassdoor. Handshake. Reiner used them all in his quest for work.
“I was just going through all of those job-finding apps, blasting everything with my resumé that was looking for a business major,” said Reiner, who estimates he applied for more than 200 positions related to his degree. “It’s horribly demoralizing sending out literally hundreds and getting a couple of replies saying no and one that says yes.”
Reiner, after all, was not only competing for work with the thousands of college grads in Northern Nevada — his resumé was also going up against thousands more who were recently laid off during the pandemic.
In May, when Reiner graduated, the Silver State’s unemployment rate was 25.3%, with an estimated 350,800 Nevadans out of work.
As such, the first job Reiner landed was not even related to his business degree. A few weeks after graduating, through a Craigslist posting, he took a job at a local recycling center for $13 per hour.
He lasted two months before he put in his two weeks.
“That was horrible,” Reiner laughed. “When I saw the climate coming out of school, I just thought, I don’t want to flounder for years, and I don’t want to move back home (to Sacramento), and I don’t want to take a horrible job that I hate, which I ended up doing anyway.
“But I was looking for any job I could find.”
In late August, Reiner, after multiple interviews, was relieved to land a new job answering phones for a plumbing supply company. In the process, he spent “any spare moment” he had searching for a new gig.
“If I didn’t,” Reiner continued, “then I would just kind of sit around for hours a day playing video games, which is fun, but you can only do that for so long.”
At the start of their last semesters, UNR’s class of 2020 was positioned to enter one of the strongest job markets in Northern Nevada and beyond. Last January, greater Reno-Sparks’ unemployment rate was a mere 3.4%, a hair below the national rate of 3.6%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Instead, the new graduates face one of the weakest and most challenging job markets for young adults in decades. This spring, when many were graduating from college, unemployment for 20-to-24-year-olds was above 20%, according to the BLS, which showed jobless rates in the low teens for all other age groups.
As a result, a record number of young people are living at home with their parents. In July 2020, 52% of young adults ages 18 to 29 years old lived with one or both of their parents, eclipsing the previous peak in 1940, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data.
One of those young adults is Michelle Santos, who graduated from UNR in the winter of 2019 with a dual degree in psychology and anthropology. Though Santos graduated before the pandemic took hold, it was only a few months after being handed her diploma that she saw the job market affected by COVID.
Like Reiner, Santos was also in no rush to start her career. After graduating, she was working at Forever 21 and Olive Garden to pay her bills, including rent money to her parents.
However, when COVID hit, like many in retail and restaurant work, Santos suddenly had no shifts for months.
“From one day to the next, I just didn’t have a job,” said Santos, who in the summer returned to work part-time at Forever 21. “It was really hard not being able to work or do anything of my normal routine. It hurt my financial situation pretty badly.”
Grad school movement
Santos decided to use her time in quarantine to research and apply to graduate schools, a growing trend for recent undergrads during the economic downturn.
Applications to medical schools, for example, are up 18%, according to the Association of Medical Colleges. Meanwhile, law schools experienced a 32% surge in applications over last year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. And this past fall, UNR’s College of Business saw a 16% jump in graduate enrollment compared to fall 2019.
Santos said she applied to three graduate schools, with the hopes of attending one of them in fall 2021. Whether she would be attending classes on campus or at home from her laptop, she isn’t sure yet.
Until then, Santos said her motivation to find a job related to her psychology degree, such as a behavioral technician, has been “very low.”
At the onset of the pandemic, Santos said she was concerned about contracting COVID and putting her parents’ health at risk. Plus, open jobs in her field paid too low of wages and had too poor of working conditions, she said.
“I feel like, damn, I can’t even get a decent job when I spent four years of my life and money,” Santos said. “I graduated and I’m still here. No miracle happened. This might sound ignorant, but I feel like it shouldn’t be this hard.”
As the pandemic wore on and the job market cratered, the UNR grad said she “felt stuck.”
“It put me in a really bad mental funk,” she said. “It was really hard to have the desire to do things that would make me feel better, like at least going out for a walk or talking to a friend.”
The impact the pandemic is having on peoples’ mental health, in fact, made Santos realize the increased need for mental health counselors, the job she would ultimately like to secure after grad school.
“Before the pandemic, I already knew how important mental health was, especially for adolescents and young adults,” Santos said. “And then since the pandemic hit, I was like, yeah, we’re all struggling here.”
As for Reiner, he’s craving a change of scenery and coworker interaction that he can’t get from working out of his apartment, which he shares with three roommates.
“My life is in this room,” Reiner said. “I work in this room; I sleep in this room; I do my hobbies in this room. I turned my room into this den that I don’t like being in anymore.”
From a national standpoint, research shows the embrace of digital commerce is a whole decade ahead of schedule thanks to the pandemic. We spoke with the Retail Association of Nevada, Downtown Reno Partnership and the Reno+Sparks Chamber of Commerce to give local context to the growth of online retail.