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

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 establishments to make a stable income. Zheng said he’s scared of taking a job that may expose him to the coronavirus and then potentially infecting his parents.

“My parents are on the older side. I’m afraid if I get the virus, I won’t be the one getting hurt. They’re going to be the ones seriously harmed by the virus. That’s also really deterred me from going out there too much,” he said.

Another UIC graduate, Serge Golota, 22, who earned a biochemistry degree in May, is moving from his Chicago apartment back to his parents’ Glenview home because he hasn’t found a job.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 52% of young adults ages 18 to 29 reported in July they were living with one or both parents, an increase from a decade ago when 44% of young adults lived at home.

Golota, who has about $17,000 in student loan debt, said he applied to lab positions and broadened his search to include pharmaceutical sales, but potential employers aren’t calling back, or they’re asking for several years of experience. If he doesn’t find a job in the coming months, he might apply at retailers like Target or

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

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 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.

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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 establishments to make a stable income. Zheng said he’s scared of taking a job that may expose him to the coronavirus and then potentially infecting his parents.

“My parents are on the older side. I’m afraid if I get the virus, I won’t be the one getting hurt. They’re going to be the ones seriously harmed by the virus. That’s also really deterred me from going out there too much,” he said.

Another UIC graduate, Serge Golota, 22, who earned a biochemistry degree in May, is moving from his Chicago apartment back to his parents’ Glenview home because he hasn’t found a job.

According to a study by the Pew