Courtesy of Laura DeSantis and Brian Nolan

Left, Laura DeSantis '09; Right, Brian Nolan '09

April 12, 2020

Alumni of Last Great Economic Crisis Share Lessons for Job-Hunting in a Recession

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The unemployment rate is currently at least 13 percent  — the highest level seen since the Great Depression. And with stringent social distancing rules anticipated to remain for months, that number may rise to as high as 30 percent in the second quarter, according to government officials.

While service workers have been hit the hardest so far, college internship programs — which are often key to landing a full-time job — have seen widespread cancellations, throwing Cornellians’ career plans into disarray.

Although companies like Amazon and Google have committed to virtual alternatives, L’Oreal, Indeed, Discovery Inc. and Buzzfeed, among dozens of others, decided to rescind offers to incoming interns.

But for alumni who weathered the last great economic storm, this scene is a familiar one. The Sun spoke with two Cornellians who graduated after the stock market crash — Laura DeSantis ’09 and Brian Nolan ’09 — and asked them how they dealt with a slumping economy and lackluster job market upon graduating and recruiting for their first full-time offers.

“The frustrating thing is you can easily put a lot of time and energy into finding interviews and getting to the very later rounds on some of them, just to have these firms post the notice that they canceled their entire hiring program,” Nolan said, who — like thousands of Cornell juniors and seniors today — suddenly found himself job-hunting in a time of mass unemployment.

Despite the difficulties upcoming graduates may face to getting hired, Nolan advised that, even if opportunities seem bare, it is critical to stay persistent and not give up.

“I hit every single LinkedIn posting and every career website,” Nolan said. “I went through my Rolodex and even my parents’ Rolodex. I also visited Cornell’s career group several times.”

Even so, Nolan cautioned that students looking to land a role might need to lower their standards, considering jobs in less-than-ideal industries or with worse pay.

“At the end of the day, I had to take a job I didn’t really want coming out of school at a pay rate that I probably didn’t want either,” Nolan said. “But I suppose that’s part of what made me an attractive candidate.”

However, even in historic crises, not all industries are hit equally hard. A few lucky students that graduated in ‘09 had already secured return offers from past summer internships, and thus were not hugely affected by the crash.

Laura DeSantis ’09 was one of those students, maintaining a job offer from a bulge bracket bank.

“I received a full time offer in August of 2008 in wealth management, and though that was not a role I had initially intended on pursuing, it turned out to be a great fit and an ideal career for me in the long term.” DeSantis said.

This largely mirrors the college job market today, with many large tech corporations and big banks bucking the trend by maintaining their summer internship program and honoring existing job offers. In a notable move, Citibank decided to extend full time roles to the entirety of its Class of 2021 internship class, while other Wall Street firms have promised full intern pay despite shortened or virtual programs.

But for those unable to secure a position, many students often contemplate extending their education to bide time until the job market recovers.

Drawing from data in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that recessions can increase college attendance levels — a relationship that may stem, in part, from the lower opportunity cost of paying for an education amid scarce employment opportunities.

But for DeSantis and Nolan, while pursuing an MBA degree was certainly a viable option, they decided against it in order to focus on their career. However, both vouched for it as a worthwhile pursuit if a student ultimately aims for upper management or a career switch.

While thousands of students’ career prospects are in disarray, Nolan stressed that, in contrast to the last great financial crisis, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

“This is seen as a temporary issue with a clear understanding that some time over the next 18 months things will go back to ‘normal’. Finance and investing companies at least will still be laying the plans for talent acquisition and building for the future,” Nolan said.