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College grads struggle to launch careers in a pandemic economy. ‘I chose the worst year to get my life together’

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CHICAGO — Kevin Zheng had big plans lined up as he prepared to graduate in the spring with a degree in criminal justice from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The 23-year-old thought he’d enter the job market well-prepared, with an internship at the Chicago Police Department on his resume.

But the COVID-19 health crisis upended that plan. His internship was canceled, his graduation was delayed until August, and he sat in his bedroom for the virtual commencement ceremony. Now he’s looking for a job in a pandemic-induced recession.

“I chose the worst year to get my life together,” said Zheng, a first-generation college graduate who lives in Chicago’s McKinley Park neighborhood.

As the coronavirus pandemic wears on, Zheng and other recent college graduates are grappling with a tight job market, high unemployment rates and pressure to find work to pay off student loans.

At the start of the year, Generation Z, typically defined as those born after 1997, was headed into the workforce during the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. But now the unemployment rate in Illinois for those ages 20 to 24 is 15.5%, one of the highest among all age groups in the state, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor.

With more employers cutting jobs and some boosting qualifications for open positions, recent college graduates are worried they’ll fall behind in their careers. Some are saving money for student loan payments by cutting expenses, while others are applying for part-time and low-wage jobs. Many still live with their parents.

Zheng, who lives with his parents and owes about $30,000 in student loans, said he is considering picking up part-time work, but he’s seen how difficult it can be. Both his parents work in the restaurant industry, often cobbling together shifts at different dining

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Key ways Sullivan and Hayes differ on the economy and education in the coronavirus crisis

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The coronavirus crisis that continues to stifle jobs and schools across the nation is a key dividing line in the race for Connecticut’s most competitive congressional district.

A New Fairfield prosecutor trying to be the first Republican to represent the 5th District since 2006 says the direction voters wanted when they elected Donald Trump president in 2016 is the way out of the COVID-19 crisis for people in northwestern and central Connecticut.

But U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes says the correction voters wanted when they elected her and a Democratic majority to the House of Representatives in 2018 is the way to help schools in need and get the economy back on its feet in Connecticut.

Republican challenger David X. Sullivan, a retired assistant U.S. attorney, said he started out campaigning against Hayes but has wound up fighting a war against “Marxism.”

“We need to move forward to provide help to people, but we have to transition away from total dependency on the federal government,” Sullivan told Hearst Connecticut Media last week. “We want to get people back to work.”

Hayes, who first made the spotlight in 2016 as the national Teacher of the Year, said relief for jobs and schools in Connecticut’s 5th District can’t wait for the next election day mandate on Nov. 3.

“We are in a Democratic majority in the House and the bills we are passing reflect Democratic priorities, but they also reflect the priorities of the people of this district,” Hayes told Hearst Connecticut Media. “I vote for the plan that does the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people.”

Hayes’ and Sullivan’s comments came at the end of a week of virtual 5th District debates in Danbury and Waterbury, and a week of partisan debates in Washington, D.C., over a new

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Gen Z college grads struggle to launch careers in pandemic economy. ‘I chose the worst year to get my life together.’

Posted on

Kevin Zheng had big plans lined up as he prepared to graduate in the spring with a degree in criminal justice from the University of Illinois at Chicago.



a man looking at the camera: Jesus Mendoza, 23, at his Southeast Side home Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. Mendoza graduated from Chicago State University in May with a business administration degree.


© Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Jesus Mendoza, 23, at his Southeast Side home Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. Mendoza graduated from Chicago State University in May with a business administration degree.

The 23-year-old thought he’d enter the job market well-prepared, with an internship at the Chicago Police Department on his resume.

But the COVID-19 health crisis upended that plan. His internship was canceled, his graduation was delayed until August, and he sat in his bedroom for the virtual commencement ceremony. Now he’s looking for a job in a pandemic-induced recession.



a man sitting on a bench in front of a laptop: Jesus Mendoza, 23, graduated from Chicago State University in May with a business administration degree.


© Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Jesus Mendoza, 23, graduated from Chicago State University in May with a business administration degree.

“I chose the worst year to get my life together,” said Zheng, a first-generation college graduate who lives in Chicago’s McKinley Park neighborhood.

As the coronavirus pandemic wears on, Zheng and other recent college graduates are grappling with a tight job market, high unemployment rates and pressure to find work to pay off student loans.

At the start of the year, Generation Z, typically defined as those born after 1997, was headed into the workforce during the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. But now the unemployment rate in Illinois for those ages 20 to 24 is 15.5%, one of the highest among all age groups in the state, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor.



a man sitting in front of a building: Kevin Zheng, 23, a first generation college graduate from the University of Illinois at Chicago, poses for a photo in the backyard of his parents' home, Oct. 9, 2020.


© Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Kevin Zheng, 23, a first generation college graduate from the University of Illinois at Chicago, poses for a photo in the backyard of his parents’ home, Oct. 9, 2020.

With more employers cutting jobs

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The best medicine for a COVID-19 economy? More education and training

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Reading the tea leaves of a U.S. economy reshaped by COVID-19 has sent economic analysts and prognosticators into overdrive. Many see a move away from big cities and into simpler, socially distanced life in small towns. If this happens at scale, it could be a boon to heretofore “left-behind” places in the Midwest and other regions.

Others predict significant drops in demand for jobs with low education and training requirements, driven by automation and the growth of technology needed to operate socially distanced offices, warehouses, manufacturing facilities and even restaurants. A recently released analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia lends support to this idea.

Policymakers can adopt policies to help improve wages and opportunities in jobs with fewer credentialing requirements, for example by helping smaller manufacturers and boosting the minimum wage. But policy also needs to directly address the need for more workers with higher skills due both to the pandemic and longer-run economic trends. In many of the new and growing jobs, these higher skill requirements can best be met by providing workers with more extensive and affordable post-secondary opportunities.

As one of us argued earlier this year in the New York Times, some industries will benefit from the COVID-19-related economic crisis, but those most likely to do so – in fields such as health care, medical devices and communications – require workers with associate degrees or short-term certifications of the sort available at community colleges. A society that moves fast to retrain its work force for these new opportunities will recover more quickly than one that does not.

Deep recessions like the one we are currently in accelerate existing trends towards automation and change the skills demanded by employers. Again, this poses a particular challenge for manufacturing-reliant regions that have been hard-hit by the coronavirus and