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Ask the Expert: Finding a Job in a Pandemic

By Brian Hiro

The job prospects for the almost 4,700 students in the Class of 2020 at Cal State San Marcos were shaping up to be especially robust, with some analyses describing it as the strongest job market in half a century. 

In February, employers added 273,000 new jobs and the unemployment rate was at a record low, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

Almost overnight, the coronavirus laid waste to that rosy picture. Businesses that were forced to shut down because of the pandemic led, over the next couple of months, a staggering total of 36.5 million people to apply for unemployment benefits.  

Suddenly, the job market that looked so promising could be the worst since the Great Depression. But CSUSM alumni are nothing if not resilient, and that quality will be needed in abundance as they navigate the uncertainty that awaits them. 

In the latest installment of Ask the Expert, we talk to Ranjeeta Basu, a CSUSM economics professor and the university’s interim provost and vice president of Academic Affairs, about the road ahead for the Class of 2020 and her advice to them.  


Question: Most people have seen the numbers, but as an economics professor, can you try to put in perspective the devastation to the economy wrought by COVID-19? 

Ranjeeta Basu: We have never experienced a pandemic in our lifetime, so this kind of analysis is new to us as economists. We have economic models based on the last pandemic from 1918, but needless to say, the structure of the economy and the kind of technology was very different at that time. Having said so, we can extrapolate from our basic macroeconomic models that the pandemic has both supply and demand side effects. On the supply side, shutdown of economic activity in many sectors has resulted in the contraction of economic output. The extent of the contraction depends upon the extent to which businesses are able to pivot and find a way to continue to operate in a virtual environment. A pandemic also causes a contraction in demand because of the loss of income but also because people spend less when there is greater uncertainty and risk.  

The economic impact of the pandemic can be softened by aggressive economic policies that provide relief through income transfers, unemployment benefits, bankruptcy relief and providing infrastructural and distributional support. Sound containment and safety measures can not only flatten the curve of the pandemic, but it can also provide certainty, allowing people to continue to consume and work without fear of infection. By announcing that we plan to be fully virtual with a few limited exceptions (following appropriate safety protocol), we are providing certainty and safety so that students can continue their education and employees can continue to have jobs.  


Q: Have you talked to or heard from any 2020 graduates regarding their anxiety about leaving college and entering this job market? What kinds of things are they saying? 

RB: Graduates are understandably worried about entering the job market during an economic downturn. They are worried that they will not find jobs in their fields.  


Q: What advice do you or can you offer them? 

RB: I can reassure them that college graduates are able to weather economic downturns far better than those without a college degree. Research shows that, during the last recession in 2008, college graduates experienced an unemployment rate of 6.9% compared to the overall unemployment rate of 15.8% for young workers. A vast majority of jobs created since the Great Recession went to college graduates. College graduates earn on average $1 million more over their lifetimes compared to those without a college degree. I will also remind them that the skills that they have learned in college will give them the ability to pivot, to be innovative, to find solutions, to be flexible such that they can find a way to continue economic activity in a very different environment. I will advise our college graduates to let go of their expectations of how things should be and embrace how things could be in this rapidly changing new reality we are in for the foreseeable future. 


Q: Do you think more people than usual will be going to graduate school because of concerns about their immediate job prospects? 

RB: Yes, I think this is the best time to be in school and get a higher degree. It is the best investment that you can make in an uncertain economic environment. Research has shown that enrollment in graduate and undergraduate programs is typically higher during recessions. Obviously, you don’t want to get into a lot of student debt, but by going to a state school like ours that has lower tuition and fees compared to many other universities, you can re-skill and retool and be better poised for the job market when the economy recovers.  


Q: As bad as the 2008 crisis was, most economists seem to think the Great Depression of the 1930s is a more apt comparison for what’s happening now. Do you agree, and if so, what are the possible ramifications of that? 

RB: I think we want to be cautious about false equivalences. At the same time, we also want to learn lessons from the past. The Great Depression taught us that we need to have safety nets in place for those who have the least and are often the hardest hit by economic crisis. This is not only the compassionate thing to do, but it will also “flatten the economic curve” of the recession. We are facing both a public health crisis and an economic crisis – we are not going to be able to survive either one without all of us working together as one seeking solutions that work for all. My economic well-being and survival depends on your economic well-being and survival. I cannot be well unless we all are.  


Q: We’re still early in this crisis, but how long do you think it might take the economy to recover from the hit inflicted by COVID-19? 

RB: From what we are hearing from public health experts, the pandemic will go on with ups and downs for at least two years or more. Given the length of this crisis, we can assume that the structure of the economy will be irrevocably altered. We have to be prepared that some jobs will be gone forever, making way for new jobs that we hadn’t even imagined. The need to have skills that are flexible and can easily adapt to new environments is more critical than ever before.  

Structural change can bring a lot of upheaval and uncertainty, which can be painful, but it can also bring with it the ability to break down barriers and imagine a new way to be that will reduce inequalities, take greater care of our planet and each other for a more sustainable future for all of us. I know that our graduates will be in the vanguard of that new wave. I hope that we have taught them to have the courage to care, to innovate, to be creative, to be fearless in the face of crisis.  

Media Contact

Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist

bhiro@csusm.edu | Office: 760-750-7306