Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, 22-year-old Mahutin Paul was planning to travel in March to San Antonio, Texas, for the National Society of Black Engineers’ annual convention. Paul—a mechanical engineering student at City College—is hunting for a summer internship, and also hoping to line up a full-time job for when he graduates in December.
But those plans have been complicated by the pandemic. Many summer internships have been cancelled or delayed, and like most big events, the job convention was postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak. It was replaced instead with a virtual career fair which Paul attended Thursday, logging into an online event platform that allowed participants to visit the “booths” of different employers for a chance to chat remotely with job recruiters there.
“It was interesting. A little confusing,” he says. “Not the same as, let me go up to you in person, say ‘Hey,’ shake your hand. None of that.”
With all but essential businesses still under lockdown, the city’s job market has been upended by COVID-19: New York lost more than a million jobs last month, pain that’s likely to continue for some time, with experts fearing the unemployment rate could climb as high as 27 percent as a result of the pandemic. Those who are actively looking for work face a new reality: While certain industries continue to hire in numbers, those positions available tend to be public-facing roles — meaning job seekers must weigh their need for a paycheck against the health risks posed by such work.
“For someone who is young and healthy and willing to be careful, maybe it’s not that problematic,” says Ruth Milkman, a distinguished professor and sociologist of labor at CUNY’s Graduate Center. But the decision may be tougher for others, like those with underlying health conditions. “I think you will see some people who are really just desperate for income take a chance and do that kind of thing.”
Experts say it’s crucial government leaders start moving now to offset some of these job losses — by doing things like expanding internet access for city residents, strengthening paid sick leave policies and investing in job training programs — so the workforce will be prepared when the economy does eventually restart.
“One thing the city can do is make sure it’s keeping its workforce strong and whole, so when the job market is flooded … there will be a structure to respond to it,” says Irene Branche, chief development officer for The HOPE Program, a nonprofit that aids job seekers. With so many people “home and idle,” she says, “let’s invest in training right now.”
“Like a bomb”
The Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side works with about 1,000 job-seekers each year. In addition to those who were already looking for work before the pandemic hit, they’re now seeing an influx of participants who’ve become unemployed because of the crisis, according to Lisa Tomanelli, director of employment services there.
“We had a pool of people still searching for jobs when the shelter-at-home order hit, and then we had a pool of people that lost their jobs,” she says.
Since the crisis started, more than 1.4 million New Yorkers have filed for unemployment, according to the state. Many of the jobs that have disappeared under quarantine were in customer-facing areas like retail, restaurants, food service or hospitality — industries largely served by low-wage workers of color, experts say.
“Low-income New Yorkers, who are generally people of color, and young adults, are the hardest hit,” says Sharon Sewell-Fairman, executive director of the Workforce Professionals Training Institute, which trains and consults workforce nonprofits.
The jobs lost during this pandemic are also different from what we’ve seen in prior economic downturns, including the Great Depression and the 2008 recession. In the past, industries like construction and manufacturing were typically the first to see major job losses, while service industry positions were usually “the last to feel it,” according to Milkman.
“This time, it was like a bomb hitting them — that was just it,” she says. “I don’t think there’s any historical precedent for that.”
It could be a while before those types of jobs re-emerge in any significant way, she adds: Some city businesses are already closing for good, and many more may not survive the lockdown. Even when non-essential services do open back up, people are unlikely to start shopping or spending as they did pre-pandemic: Fears of infection could keep them out of restaurants, from hiring a housekeeper or nanny, taking a trip or staying at a hotel. Social distancing rules will also force most in-person businesses to serve fewer customers at a time than before.
“It’s going to be pretty bleak,” Milkman says. “I think people are going to be nervous for quite a while.”
Demand for risky jobs
Even as some industries’ have shed jobs completely, others are seeing increased demand for workers because of the pandemic. Hospitals and mortuaries are hiring, and while the city’s Workforce 1 job placement centers are physically closed during lockdown, they’re still open remotely and are currently looking to fill nearly 3,000 job positions across the city, according to a spokeswoman for the city’s Small Business Services.
Most of those jobs are with employers providing essential services, such as grocery stores, delivery services, pharmacies, and healthcare providers. Some essential employers are even encountering a recent scarcity of candidates who are qualified and willing to work, particularly in fields like security and at some grocery stores, according to Tondalaya London of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.
Entirely new positions are also being created as a result of the pandemic: The city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, for instance, is hiring out-of-work cab and for-hire vehicles drivers to deliver food to those in need. But it’s not clear how long-term those types of positions will last, or if they’ll dry up once the crisis abates. Last month, when city Health + Hospitals announced it was hiring 500 non-medical workers to assist in COVID-19 relief efforts, Mayor de Blasio noted those jobs are temporary, potentially ending after 90 days.
Many of these available positions also require interaction with the public, meaning they’re not a safe option for everyone, particularly those who have other health issues or who live with family members who do.
“It’s a matter of how comfortable people are, or what their health issues are,” in being able to take such work, says Branche of The HOPE program.
Since March, Henry Street Settlement has been able to find positions for 25 of its clients, according to director Tomanelli. All of that work has been in “front line, essential jobs” — at a bank, at a supermarket, cleaning rooms — which has Henry Street staff engaging in a new type of job prep they hadn’t encountered pre-pandemic.
“It’s coaching them on what they can use as PPE [Personal Protective Equipment]. Get out your winter gloves. Do you have a winter scarf? Do you have a bandana?” Tomanelli says. They’re training clients on how to conduct Zoom interviews, and helping those who don’t have it access things like wifi and computers. They’re also advising job-seekers to first try finding work in their immediate neighborhoods, so they won’t have to risk taking public transit during the outbreak.
“We’re all sort of trying to adapt to this new world,” she says. “Our clients have needs and want to work, and need to work.”
In March, CUNY’s City College hosted a virtual career fair for its job-seeking students — an event that was supposed to take place in-person, but was moved online after the pandemic hit. Rhea Faniel, an senior associate director at the school’s Career and Professional Development Institute, says 40 employers took part in the virtual event, which saw about 400 attendees (about half of what normal attendance has been at past live fairs, she says).
While she hasn’t had any students report losing a full-time job or getting an offer rescinded because of the pandemic, many have seen summer internship opportunities dry up. “Employers are cancelling them altogether or they’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to push out and postpone until the fall,” or even until next summer, Faniel says.
That’s the situation Paul, the engineering student slated to graduate in December, has found himself in. While he’s yet to find an internship for this summer, he remains optimistic, taking advantage of things like the recent virtual career fair and keeping in touch with Faniel about other potential opportunities.
“I’m also looking for full-time opportunities, but they usually want you to have some experience,” he says. It’s a dilemma many new graduates face each year — just more complicated under a pandemic.
“I’m just in a weird limbo, employment-wise,” Paul says. “I feel like the crisis didn’t cause the problem, but more so amplifies it by a lot.”
Faniel says she’s encouraging student job seekers to use this time to take advantage of free online skills-training programs, like Grow with Google and LinkedIn Learning, or by asking their school’s career service centers for help with things like networking, refining their resumes, interview prep and building their brand.
In spite of the lockdown, some employers continue to hire: Faniel’s staff has seen recent job opportunities in programming, software engineering, database management and technology, as well as for education jobs in anticipation of schools starting back up in the fall. They’ve also seen job postings for big-name corporations like CVS, Walgreens, Walmart and Amazon warehouses — gigs that may not be every students’ dream job, but that could offer a path to new skillsets or potential promotions.
“Some of these stores also have management training programs. There might be an opportunity for you to move up and move into a professional position,” Faniel says she tells students. “Take this time to build on your skills.”
Time for training
With so much of the city out of work and an ongoing recession looming, advocates say now is the time for the government to better invest in workforce development and job training programs so workers will be better equipped when the economy does restart.
Many of the customer-facing jobs impacted by the current pandemic were already at risk of being lost in the coming decades, as things like self-checkout and other automated technology replaces some human workers — a trend that will likely become more common under social distancing.
“COVID-19 has accelerated the thought of automation,” explains Sewell-Fairman, making it even more important for the government to now invest in “skilling, reskilling and up-skilling,” its labor force in response to the changing market.
That means, at a minimum, investing in more digital literacy programs to boost the computer skills of both job seekers and job trainers, and ensuring residents across the city have access to a personal computer and wifi.
“COVID-19 is really, really increasing the awareness of the digital divide,” Sewell-Fairman says.
The city should also be looking to boost more programs that offer “soft skills” training to workers, like communication and critical-thinking. She and other advocates say lawmakers can do this by better funding workforce development nonprofits and job placement programs, as well as grants for businesses that are willing to offer on-the-job training.
Such training will also be important in New York’s COVID-19 relief efforts, as demand increases for workers to perform tasks like testing and tracking the virus: Just last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo the state will be hiring up to 17,000 “contact tracers” as part of its coronavirus battle plan, while the city is hiring another 1,000 such workers.
“All of that requires reskilling and upskilling of the workforce,” Sewell-Fairman says.