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The labor market is hot, but college grads are still struggling with the job hunt

The rise of remote work and a looming recession make this a complicated time to look for full-time work.

Jennifer Suryadjaja, soon to earn a graduate certificate in digital marketing management from Northeastern University, is looking for a job.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Since graduating from Bunker Hill Community College in May with her associate’s degree in child psychology, Cindy Alev has applied to 98 jobs. Aside from one interview, the 24-year-old hasn’t heard back from any of them.

“Searching for a job has been the hardest thing that I’ve had to do,” said Alev, who lives in Dorchester and currently works as a supply chain operation assistant at Boston Medical Center to pay the bills. “I feel like I’m failing, not being able to accomplish something after college and use my degree to do what I want to do, which is work with kids.”

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Alev’s experience may seem at odds with headlines from the spring boasting a hot labor market, with plenty of job openings and a low unemployment rate. But with inflation eating at wage growth and recession fears prompting employers to pare back growth plans, recent college graduates like Alev find themselves entering the job market at a tumultuous and strange time.

“There still seems to be a fair amount of opportunity, but it depends on what sector you’re going into,” said Kathy Robinson, founder of Boston-based career coaching platform TurningPoint. “It’s like a giant game of musical chairs. The game is still going but the chairs are getting removed, one at a time.”

Jennifer Suryadjaja is entering the job market for a second time, with a graduate certificate in digital and marketing management from Northeastern. She began looking for jobs in the spring of 2020 — not so great timing either — after finishing her undergraduate degree from Boston University. After several short internships, she found a full-time position, but eventually decided to return to school.

“This isn’t my first rodeo, but unfortunately here I am again after graduating in a job market that was also bleak in the pandemic, and now we’re facing a recession,” said Suryadjaja. “So I’m trying to make the best of what I can get.”

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Complicating matters, Suryadjaja is Indonesian, here on a student visa. With school done, she can apply for an Optional Practical Training visa, or OPT, which would allow her to work in the United States for one year (beyond that she’d need an employer-sponsored H-1B visa). Once she gets the OPT visa, Suryadjaja has three months to find a job related to her degree. If she can’t, she’ll be deported.

She’s noticing more job opportunities compared to 2020, but Suryadjaja is still having a tough time getting her foot in the door. Despite extensive research and networking, competing with other applicants as an international student in the current labor market has been grueling.

Jennifer Suryadjaja applied for a job, while sitting in a Boston coffee house.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“It’s definitely frustrating because I have been doing my best,” she said. “I’m doing everything I can to get a job as soon as possible, I think it just takes a little bit more time and patience now.”

Graduates are also entering the job market as many employers are rethinking the future of work, and must consider whether they prefer remote or in-person jobs.

“It’s an interesting time because many things have returned to in-person,” said Erica Mattison, a private career coach based in Jamaica Plain. “But we’re at an inflection point where many grads are interested in remote or hybrid work.”

In May, two days before she graduated from Boston University, Carina Wang secured a job as a marketing coordinator at Dopple, a children’s clothing company based in New York. But the 22-year-old won’t be moving there. She’ll stay in Boston and work remotely. And with inflation driving prices up, Wang’s first priority when job hunting was pay.

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“Boston rent is so expensive, and only getting higher, so I really cared about that base salary,” said Wang, who added that while New York and Boston both have notoriously high rent, Boston felt slightly more manageable, something that factored into her decision.

Whether an employer requires in-person or remote work is “definitely a factor” in Boston University graduate Sofia Barros’s job search, because she knows she works best in a hybrid setting where she can do both. She’s also searching for a salaried position in the entertainment industry somewhere in Los Angeles, factors that have led to a longer job hunt.

“Looking for jobs has been a little challenging because I’m searching for something specific,” she said. “The biggest struggle I’ve had is just getting that first interview. I’ve been applying for months, and I just got my first interview for a job yesterday.”

And with stocks falling and executives and economists sounding the alarm about a potential recession within the next year, recent graduates are also factoring an economic downturn into their career plans.

“I have thought about a recession and it scares me every single day because I’m scared I’ll become jobless and homeless,” said Alev. “I’m 24 and I’m supposed to enjoy life, but I’ve spent my time working without being able to do the things I love because of how bad the economy is.”

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But career coaches say the job market still offers a fair amount of opportunity for younger workers, and being persistent during a job search despite complex economic factors can increase recent graduates’ chances of success, said Robinson.

“Unfortunately, if you pull back [from the job search] because of stress, you’ll miss the hiring that’s happening right now, because this is a peak time to be onboarding recent grads,” she said. “Having a regular, consistent job search habit is really important no matter what’s going on around us in the world.”

Despite the gloomy economic outlook, Suryadjaja remains optimistic about her job search. But she can’t help but feel that she just happened to enter the job market at an unlucky time.

“If I had graduated five years ago, it would have been a whole different ball game,” she said. “But now, we’re dealing with more cards in the deck that we have to consider, and that makes me a little upset.”


Annie Probert can be reached at annie.probert@globe.com.