Employers might be more willing to excuse résumé gaps, given the unprecedented nature of this recession. But for years, the number of qualified people looking for work may greatly outpace the number of good jobs available. “I just can’t really shake the feeling that, maybe a year from now, if I’m interviewing for a job, they’re going to be asking me, ‘What did you do during the pandemic?’” said Klonsky, the Berkeley student. She spent the past semester in London; her parents live in Australia. “I mean, the best answer I could give would be: ‘Dealing with border control a lot,’” she said.
For young people hoping to join a summer-jobs initiative or get an internship, the pandemic means fewer opportunities to get ready for the labor market, build workplace skills, and flesh out a résumé. Subsidized summer-jobs programs, like New York City’s, have proved hugely valuable for at-risk youth, for instance. Losing them means leaving hundreds of thousands of young people a little further behind. “They’ve been shown to reduce criminal-justice involvement, decrease mortality, improve school attendance and graduation rates, and improve soft skills,” says Amanda Briggs, an expert on workforce-development policies at the Urban Institute. “They have this connection to a positive experience in the summer that can help them in the immediate term and also potentially in the longer term.”
More broadly, public-policy experts worry that this idle summer will widen existing inequalities. Rich kids will have their paid internships moved online, or will be able to enroll in virtual summer courses. Poor kids, with no laptop or smartphone, and their job at a landscaping company canceled, will be left with nothing. Because of long-standing educational and labor trends, says Shayne Spaulding, another workforce-development expert at the Urban Institute, young black and Latino men are most at risk.
Perhaps the greatest risk of all is persistent joblessness due to a sluggish recovery from the pandemic shock. An idle summer might become an idle year; an idle year might become an idle generation. Having large numbers or a persistent presence of NEETs is a societal failing, and comes with a heavy societal cost: higher rates of crime, slower growth, social exclusion, wasted potential.
Preventing a temporary disruption from becoming a permanent scar is an urgent policy concern, making it all the more important for Congress and the Federal Reserve to help businesses stay open and families stay afloat. But young people also need age- and situation-specific policies: free training programs, free community college, and a huge expansion of subsidized-jobs initiatives aimed at helping the most vulnerable, among them teenage parents and young people living in high-poverty areas.
For her part, Lopez Villamil is fighting the summertime abyss. She is planning to take college courses online at the City University of New York over the summer, and become more involved in public-policy activism. Along with some of her teenage peers, she has been pressuring members of the city government to fund the summer-jobs initiative. Still, the prospect of a transformed summer, an economy in free fall, and a public-health crisis frightened her, she said. “There was a tipping point, when people we knew started dying,” she told me. “My friends were like, ‘Okay, we no longer really care about school or the future.’ We feel so powerless.”