London Bernier put a lot of effort into searching for a post-collegiate job. Her reward was two intriguing offers.

A native of Falmouth finishing up her degree at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, Bernier looked for something that would get her out of the Northeast and into the outdoors. She’s an environmental studies major with a minor in statistics.

Bernier turned down a six-month position surveying honeybees in Montana in favor of a 10-week stream hydrology internship for a nonprofit foundation in Idaho, where she could experience everything from social media to field work. Excitedly, she made plans with her father to drive cross-country together, stopping along the way to wet their fly-fishing lines, before he flew back to Maine and left her with a car for the summer.

“Technically, I’m supposed to start June 8,” Bernier said. “They told us they’ll be making a decision on May 15 whether it will be postponed until July or canceled altogether.”

What had been shaping up as a banner job market for college graduates – with a strong economy, historically low unemployment and companies competing for available talent – changed abruptly because of efforts to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

Members of the graduating college classes of 2020 had been approaching this spring as a time of celebration and transition, of marching across a commencement stage and sashaying into an entry-level position. But among a dozen students graduating amid the coronavirus pandemic who spoke to the Portland Press Herald/ Maine Sunday Telegram, only a few have positions waiting for them. Others landed internships that may be pushed back, if not canceled altogether.

Job offers got rescinded. Hiring came to a halt. Unemployment spiked. As industry struggles to chart a course through uncertain waters, layoffs and furloughs have become commonplace.

Thousands of college students in Maine are expected to enter the job market at the end of the current semester. Last spring, Bates, Colby and Bowdoin colleges each graduated a little under 500 seniors. Across all seven campuses of the University of Maine System, there were 3,920 bachelor’s degrees conferred in spring 2019.

At the University of New England, 429 students received their bachelor’s degrees last spring, and 520 are expected to receive them this spring.

Bernier is trying to stay upbeat as she completes college coursework remotely from home. She knows classmates who’ve had offers rescinded. She knows others who were just getting to the interviewing stage. Because she won’t be returning to school in the fall, she can be flexible if her internship is pushed back.

“Everyone I know is sadly trying not to get their hopes up too much,” she said. “Everyone is just trying to mentally prepare themselves for if we all end up staying at home this summer.”

In addition to her studies while on campus, Bernier worked two jobs. One – as an intern with career services – ended last month because it could not be done remotely. The other – as a writing tutor – continues online. Two nights a week, she helps fellow students prepare essays and final papers.

“I don’t mind being at home and I feel lucky to live in a place like Maine,” Bernier said. “One of my goals after school was to go live in a new place, and I had been interested in the West. I’d be super disappointed if it didn’t work out, but if it’s for the best of everybody, it makes sense.”

JOB-SEEKING IN LIMBO

Many graduating college seniors have seen their job searches hit a wall as everyone tries to figure out what happens next.

“Some of them are a bit stuck,” said Kristin Brennan, executive director of career exploration and development at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. “They haven’t encountered anything like this in their lifetime.”

Indeed, most of this spring’s graduates were toddlers when the dotcom bubble burst in 2001. They were in junior high during the financial crisis of 2008. While the current downturn hasn’t lasted long enough to meet the technical definition of a recession, it certainly feels like one. Economists already are bringing up comparisons to the Great Depression.

“This seems to be a slower process,” said Stacy Stewart, a career adviser at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham. “Back (in 2008) it was a crash, and everybody was in the mode of putting the pieces back together again and putting us back on track. Now, we can’t even pick up the pieces yet to try and move forward, because they’re still falling.”

Consider the seniors who for three and a half years figured they were doing the right thing, following the prescribed path, and looking forward to a career-oriented job along with that coveted college degree.

Dylan Gooch of Saco, a soon to be graduate of Maine Maritime Academy outside his Saco home Thursday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Dylan Gooch of Saco is one. A senior at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, Gooch met several potential employers at a fall career fair on campus and was looking forward to touching base with them at a spring event scheduled for late March. Instead, it was canceled.

“You get to know these people, you have a quick conversation, hand over a resume and put a face to a name,” said Gooch, a marine engineering technology major. “In the spring, when students reconnect with recruiters they met at Fall Career Fair, that’s when people get offers, often right on the spot.”

Now finishing up coursework remotely from home, Gooch continues to reach out to recruiters and MMA graduates already in his desired field, the offshore oil and gas industry. His efforts have yet to bear fruit.

“They’re not laying off per se, but they’re not actively looking to hire folks, either,” Gooch said. “I’m still up in the air.”

OPPORTUNITIES CANCELED

Katie Bacall of North Yarmouth is a double major at Bowdoin, in biology and psychology. She thought she had an ideal job lined up this fall as a lab instructor for a specialized marine science program.

Limited to 10 students, the program focuses on the college’s coastal studies center in Harpswell but includes trips to Kent Island in New Brunswick, to Hurricane Island near Vinalhaven and to Hawaii to study various ecosystems. As a college junior in 2018, Bacall took the program and studied snails for her independent project. She calls it the highlight of her Bowdoin career.

In early April, she learned Bowdoin canceled the program because of uncertainty surrounding travel restrictions.

“It was only going to be for one semester, so it wasn’t going to be a long-term position, but it could have turned into something,” Bacall said. “It was going to be my launching point into marine biology.”

So in addition to the upheaval of remote classwork and the emotional toll of having the senior-spring rug pulled out from beneath her feet, Bacall is staring at an empty employment blackboard.

“Now I feel like I’m starting my job search from scratch, and that’s difficult right now,” she said. “I feel like I’m behind my peers. They’ve been searching for a longer time, and now everything’s more overwhelming and confusing.”

It was late January when Greg Levinsky, a Deering High graduate from Portland finishing up a journalism degree at Boston University, accepted a paid internship with the Hartford Courant newspaper in Connecticut to cover sports. He is scheduled to start working in early June.

“The people at the Courant have been trying hard to give us the experience we really want to get,” he said. “Tentatively, I still have my internship. I haven’t been told otherwise.”

Levinsky has been a correspondent for The Boston Globe since his sophomore fall and last summer interned at the Detroit Free Press.

“If the Courant wants me to start in August, then I might as well,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like there’s going to be a whole lot of jobs opening up between now and August.”

Kelsey Dumond stands for a portrait outside her parents’ home in Westbrook on Wednesday. Dumond is finishing a three-year doctorate program in physical therapy from the University of New England in May. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Kelsey Dumond’s future as a physical therapist is currently on hold because, like her 57 third-year classmates in the University of New England’s doctoral program, she can’t begin work until passing a national licensing exam. Problem is, testing centers have been closed due to social distancing measures.

A 24-year-old native of Lewiston, Dumond graduated from St. Joseph’s College of Maine in Standish in 2017 and now lives in Westbrook. She had been scheduled to take the rigorous 250-question test on April 28, but it was canceled. Typically, the test is offered three times a year, in April, July and October.

“Most of us have finished all of our coursework and clinical rotations,” she said. “I had been actively looking, and then all of the (societal) changes that were happening pushed back the job search a little bit.”

Dumond wonders whether it’s an appropriate time to reach out to clinics and hospitals dealing with the pandemic to inquire about job openings.

“I think the best thing is to continue to reach out, and not be passive, to let people know that we want to be there,” she said. “If you study to become a health care worker, then global pandemic or not, you want to be helping, you want to help patients in need.”

NO TIME TO GIVE UP

Jeff Nevers, director of career services at UNE in Biddeford, said many employers have frozen internship programs but others have tried to adapt them to operate remotely, depending on the type of work involved. He said it’s important to remember the pandemic is disrupting both sides of the hiring equation.

“As we work with all of our students, we’re trying to give them a little bit of a pep talk,” he said. “This is a tough time. It’s a universal thing. See how different industries react. See how different professionals adapt to a new world. Realize it’s going to be a challenging market, but also one in which they may need some flexibility. And that’s OK. All of us in our jobs are doing things we didn’t expect to be doing, like working from home.”

Jean Paquette, head of the career and employment hub at USM and former labor commissioner of Maine, said now is the time to hone cover letters and resumes, spiff up LinkedIn profiles and understand that competition for jobs will become more intense. Graduate school might be something to consider.

Brennan, of Bowdoin, said to prepare for a long process. Her office’s website has links to free skill-building courses available to college students through Coursera. Hey, if you’re already doing online learning, why not do so without having to pay tuition?

“Invest in your own skills, because those are going to stand you in good stead now and forever,” Brennan said. “Keep doing things that remind you of who you are, and what you’re good at.”

Not all industries have curtailed hiring. Brennan said an employer recently called looking for graduates interested in mortgage underwriting because refinance rates are at historic lows.

And then there are those seniors who accepted offers early in the school year and remain on course. Hwanhee Park of Cumberland and Kat Bullock of York count themselves among the lucky. Each is wrapping up coursework at home, Park for her computer science major at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and Bullock for her biomedical engineering degree at Trinity College in Connecticut.

“I have friends who had offers from Google and Disney and their offers got withdrawn,” said Park, scheduled to begin work in July for Constant Contact, an email marketing company in suburban Boston where she interned last summer.

Bullock began interviewing in the fall and accepted an offer in December from a life sciences company that has a rotational program. Her first eight-month tour begins in July in New Jersey. She’ll do two more in Massachusetts and see which position is most appealing.

“A fair amount of my friends are starting remotely and then will transition onsite,” Bullock said. “Luckily, so many companies are willing to work with us. For those people who haven’t landed jobs already, they either are waiting until this starts to settle down or they’re looking into grad school as an alternative.”

That’s what Johnny Kyte is thinking. A tourism and hospitality major at USM who hails from Ottawa, Kyte decided to ride out the stay-in-place order at his Portland apartment and finish up his coursework. He had attended two job fairs on campus and just started interviewing in mid-March when the pandemic struck.

“In my industry, the jobs aren’t there,” he said. “The world’s changed. There’s a new definition of normal, and we’re just trying to fit in with that.”

Stewart, from USM, is entering her 16th year in the career advisory field. She encouraged even those procrastinators to begin looking.

“They may have to work a little harder and catch up, but there’s still hope,” she said. “There’s always hope.”

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