COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the nation’s employment landscape, and young people are at particular risk. They’re often the first to be let go, the last to be hired, and major employers of young people—including the food service and hospitality industries—are significantly impacted by the pandemic. The YES Project has been speaking with young people representing various stages of education and employment to learn firsthand about their job experiences during COVID-19 and their advice for how decision makers can support them at this unprecedented time.
Here are highlights from our conversation with Sierra W., age 21, from Charlotte, North Carolina. Sierra is a rising senior at Hampton University, majoring in biochemistry. Sierra participates in a program that supports students of color in STEM fields. As part of the program, she is interning at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, doing biomedical research. Sierra is also a member of the Power of Youth Council at America’s Promise Alliance, where she coaches young people applying for micro-grants to make change in their own communities. Sierra plans to get her PhD and eventually become a neuroscientist.
With everything going on in the world, it’s obviously been a hard time. Conversations about racism are not something to take lightly. We are seeing widespread conversation about something that's been going on for decades—on top of the pandemic, it’s just been really uncertain. Fortunately, I was able to continue with my internship remotely during this time, but I’m definitely lacking a sense of community. I really miss feeling connected to the rest of my cohort.
A couple months ago there was something called “#BlackOutSTEM/#ShutdownSTEM” where many students and academics pledged to stop work for the day to draw attention to racial justice in the workplace. My employer gave me the option to take the day off, but then followed up and told me they had decided to cancel the workday completely. It was great that they did that—many employers don’t realize some Black employees will not ask for time off because they don't want to come off a certain way. If they hadn’t done that, it might have been harder for people to understand what this initiative is truly doing. It's not just someone typing on Twitter—it's a global conversation. Systemic racism is like a second pandemic.
I wish employers knew how tired people of color are of hiding their authentic selves. It starts from birth. I know a lot of Black people who say, “I'm not going to name my child X because it appears ‘Black’ and it will make it harder for them to get a job.” For a lot of Black women, wearing our natural hair in the workplace can be deemed unprofessional. There have been moments where I have felt the need to put on a certain voice during an interview to make a certain impression. A number of people are really hiding who they are in the workplace, which takes away from a real, diverse perspective.
- Talk about it. I think some people don’t feel comfortable talking about racism. But avoiding it might make the problem worse. There’s a big elephant in the room—employers should at least say, “We don't stand for this and we are here for you.” If possible, reach out to every Black employee and ask them, “How are you feeling? How is your mental health?” That small step can go a long way in making employees feel comfortable.
- Practice what you preach. Are you releasing a statement but not actually trying to diversify your workplace and respect your Black employees? Don't just make big statements—look around the room to see where you can improve within your own company. As yourself, “How many people of color are here? Are they fairly represented?”
- Focus on building community. We all need to pay attention to our social and emotional well-being right now. For instance, my program gives us intentional bonding time, which forces us to get to know different groups of people to foster understanding, which is important in professional settings. Even now, we do a weekly virtual lunch to chat about casual topics, and we’ve had a virtual trivia night. It’s been good to get some sort of social connection.
- Connect your employees to resources. Whether it’s about support during this pandemic or general emotional needs, employers should make sure their employees know what resources are available. Ask yourself, “Do we have any counseling available? Am I offering anything new or different during this abnormal time?” People's family members are dying, we're feeling the isolation, we're losing that natural human connection—that's scary for a lot of people and we have to remember that. Even if the “resource” is just a personal conversation with someone to see how they’re doing, it could go a long way.
- Understand gaps on young people’s resumes. Employers should consider how COVID might affect young people’s resumes. A year from now, some students may not have as much experience as they could have gotten considering many people have lost internships or other opportunities because of the pandemic. I want companies to be able to say, “This student clearly still had a strong work ethic because they were able to complete school and get good grades despite everything that was going on.” On top of that, companies are learning how much work can be done online, and now students are getting those skills. Even though our resumes might have a gap this summer, we’re still learning and have a lot to contribute.