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.”