Florida college grads face uncertain job market
Donnetta Heflin completed her requirements. She’s graduated from Bethune-Cookman University.
Yet forces much greater than her — the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying economic crisis with employers shedding more than 20 million jobs — have turned her pinnacle into a valley. Commencement has been canceled, replaced with a virtual message to be broadcast on Facebook and YouTube. And the job she’d expected, something in the executive ranks of the Arthur Blank Family YMCA, where she’s worked as a counselor since 2016, is on hold.
She’s moved back to her parents’ home in Atlanta and is looking for work.
“I applied for several jobs, Walmart, Publix, the post office. I actually did hear back from Walmart. Now I’m waiting to see when I will start,” she said Friday.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers reported in a survey of more than 400 employers, about 59% had no plans to revoke offers to 2020 college graduates as of May 1. Another 19%, though, indicated they were considering revoking offers.
Tim Styles, executive director of Career and Professional Development at Stetson University, said students have not been reporting losing job offers, but there have been “a lot of adjustments,” such as moving start dates back from June 1 to Sept. 1.
“Employers are not sure what to do, which makes it very difficult for us on the college side. Most of them are playing it safe and are either on hiring slowdowns or hiring freezes,” Styles said. “Unless they’re benefiting from the crisis.”
In the meantime, recent graduates are also having to make adjustments.
Dream v. reality
Melissa Gasparini is a survivor of the Great Recession, which led her to decide to pursue a bachelor’s degree after working in the real-estate and insurance industries.
Without a degree, the 48-year-old mother of three — ranging in age from 26 to 15 — wasn’t finding the opportunities she wanted.
“I realized I had to do something. I elected to go back to school,” she said.
She decided to move from Florida’s West Coast to be near family in Flagler Beach, and she enrolled at Daytona State College.
“I had not been in school since high school,” she said. “I knew nothing. I remember walking into a class and getting the first paper assigned in MLA format. I was a deer in the headlights. I didn’t even know what that was.”
Gasparini felt competitive with the 18-year-olds around her, and she had a goal. So she got up to speed.
“When I started this adventure, I had a husband. Two years into it, I lost a 25-year marriage. The things that could have gone wrong went wrong.”
But, she said, she had made the commitment to get her degree.
“I powered through.”
After 2 ½ years, she earned her associate’s degree at Daytona State College with a 3.94 GPA, and went on to Stetson, which had offered her a scholarship.
“When you leave a community college and go to a university like Stetson, the bar is far higher,” Gasparini said.
She wondered at first: “How did I get here? Am I supposed to be here with these people?”
“I was a little intimidated,” she said. “If you know me, you know I don’t intimidate easily.”
As an older student, she worried about fitting in and finding partners for group projects. “It turns out not to be like that. Nobody looked at me differently,” she said. “I was included. I met some really great kids there.”
She had thought about studying law, but found her passion at Stetson, public health.
In the U.S. health insurance system, Gasparini saw real problems and wanted to get involved. Through her studies, including participating in Stetson’s Model Senate program and winning the school’s T. Wayne Bailey Outstanding Senior Research Award for her project on health-care policy and the opioid crisis, she found her forte is research. Putting those two together, and she decided to major in public health with an idea about working in health-care policy.
Gasparini completed her requirements last December, earning high honors, and was to have participated in the spring commencement ceremony that’s now been moved to December 2020.
But she hasn’t been able to get job interviews, which she believes in part has to do with her age.
“There’s not a whole lot I can do with this degree at this time,” Gasparini said. “Watching this (pandemic) unfold, the way it’s being handled, the things I’m seeing on TV daily are horrifying to me and I’m not quite sure where to even go with that.”
So she has a for-now plan, handling administrative and light bookkeeping duties for a startup firm owned by some friends of hers.
“It has nothing to do with my field, but it’s a paying job,” she said. “If there was some way to financially pull off a master’s in public health policy, that’s the dream. But I’ve done four years of school and you’ve got to work at some point.”
Getting in the game
Heflin, the recent Bethune-Cookman alumnae from Atlanta, talked on Friday about how anticlimactic her graduation feels.
“Today, I’m supposed to be getting my hair done and my nails done and preparing for the big day,” she said. “For it to be gone, it’s kind of heartbreaking. I’m just looking for something else to do to occupy my time.”
At Bethune-Cookman, Heflin majored in psychology, with a thought that she might apply for graduate school to maybe to become a school counselor or principal.
She is a former Girl Scout and B-CU cheerleader who helped her older sister Leticha Heflin-Word start God, Glitter & GLAM Inc., a nonprofit organization that seeks to inspire younger women through videos and Internet messaging. Both are the daughters of an Atlanta preacher whose church was at the center of their lives growing up.
“Multiple people in our congregation have been diagnosed with coronavirus. One is a certified nursing assistant, and there’s another lady in child development at a childcare facility and her husband. These are people who are close to me … people I’ve prayed with before,” Heflin said.
There was a time during her final semester when she was finding it difficult to focus on her classes. She talked to one of her sick fellow parishioners.
“It’s like the lady told me, … ‘I found out if I laid down, I won’t get back up,’” Heflin said. “I thought, wow, the virus is just that strong it’s taking people out of here. I thought, ‘Don’t stop. Take a deep breath.”
That’s what career-services experts advise.
“Never stop searching,” Styles, the Stetson career services director, said. “A big part of this is to stay positive because this is not the Great Depression. The job market has not completely shut down. You want to focus on getting started in the job market.”
That could include internships, both paid and unpaid. Graduates can pursue “micro-internships,” or small projects which can fill out their resumes and make good impressions on employers. That approach leaves those graduates, those job seekers, better positioned to become top candidates when the market eases, Styles said.
Heflin — with her YMCA position on hold and awaiting word on a possible Walmart job as millions of other Americans, too, are looking for work — says she knows it’s not time to lie down. “I can’t wait,” she said, “to show the world what I’ve learned.”
This story originally published to news-journalonline.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.