Thousands of young Bahamians across the globe and at home, who spent years working toward their college degrees, are facing a grim reality this graduation season: No caps. No gowns. No jobs.
The novel coronavirus, which forced even the mightiest of nations to shut their economies down and impose social distancing policies, has wreaked havoc on the world economy.
The Bahamas expects unemployment to soar past 30 percent. Already, nearly 30,000 Bahamians are receiving unemployment benefits.
For Jasmine Russell, the picture is grim.
Russell, 21, recently completed her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry at The University of The Bahamas (UB).
The Grand Cay, Abaco, native did so after surviving Hurricane Dorian.
She was a student at UB North in Freeport, Grand Bahama, but after the storm devastated that island and left the school’s campus severely damaged, she relocated to UB’s campus on New Providence.
“I was on the government’s tertiary grant, as someone who isn’t from Nassau,” she said.
“So, they paid a monthly fee towards my rent, but now that I’m a graduate, that stopped.
“My mother worked at a hotel in Baha Mar. That’s closed as well.
“[So], it’s like, how are we going to be able to pay rent? My father, he works, but it’s a minimal amount of money that we get. It’s tough. We have to pray.”
She added, “It’s going to be tough to find a job, and you can’t even do anything. You just have to sit back and wait.”
Russell, who wants to be a forensic scientist, said she doesn’t have the resources she needs to apply for jobs while stuck at home.
“It’s a little depressing because we worked so hard for this degree,” she said.
“Even graduation, it’s depressing that we may not even be able to celebrate with our families and others who worked so hard to get us where we are. And then going out and finding a job, the process isn’t the same now.
“I don’t even have a laptop.
“I can’t complete my résumé. I’d usually be in the university’s lab or an internet café to update my résumé or print it out or make copies of important documents. You can’t even go out and do those things right now.”
Russell is one of many graduates facing an uncertain future and a tough job market. When the government eventually reopens the economy, thousands will be on the hunt for jobs.
On April 1, the Department of Statistics released its preliminary labor force survey conducted in December 2019. The department found that 18,195 people were unemployed on New Providence. The survey did not include information from Grand Bahama or Abaco, due to the devastation of Hurricane Dorian, which struck those islands in September 2019.
The previous survey, conducted in May 2019, and encompassing results from all three islands, noted that youth unemployment, which stood at 20 percent, remained a concern.
The department noted that more young women, between the ages of 15 and 24, were unemployed compared to young men.
In the United States, unemployment hit 14.7 percent in April 2020, the “largest over-the-month increase” since January 1948, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau said 23.1 million Americans are without work, a direct result of the “effects of the coronavirus pandemic and efforts to contain it”.
Disappointment, fear and hope
Davina Brown, 23, who completed her bachelor’s degree in administration with a concentration in human resources management, was employed with Grand Hyatt at Baha Mar. She was among the many who were temporarily laid off as COVID-19 shut down the tourism industry.
“It’s a very scary feeling, especially for young professionals like myself who were excited to continue with our careers and excited to see where the journey would take us post-graduation,” she said.
“But working in an industry that is suffering so much and is going to suffer even more after the virus, is a very scary feeling.
“[I]t’s very disappointing.”
When Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar last spoke in the House of Assembly on March 18, 2020, he said Bahamians are facing “an economic calamity”.
“The simple, yet, inconceivable reality we all need to grasp is that there will be no tourists,” he said.
All major hotels and resorts in The Bahamas temporarily laid off staff as The Bahamas closed its borders.
Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis said last week the government is eyeing July 1 as the date to resume commercial flights, but Minnis also recently painted a grim economic outlook.
The health of the Bahamian economy is directly tied to the U.S. economy.
CNN Business recently reported that while the Class of 2020 started its senior year in boom time, with the national unemployment rate at a near-record low of 3.7 percent, four million new graduates are now entering the worst job market since the Great Depression.
But Justus Pratt, 25, of Long Island, Bahamas, is prepared to take his chances.
While Pratt said he wants to eventually return home, he is currently job searching in the United States, but so far with no luck.
He just completed his master’s degree in architecture at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) in Tallahassee, Florida.
“I actually was planning on staying over here for a year or two and then, hopefully, coming back to The Bahamas later on,” he said.
“That’s my number one goal, to come back home. But when I come back, I want to bring something, you know. I want to be an entrepreneur.”
However, Pratt said the pandemic has thrown a wrench in those plans.
“Even though it’s not good at the moment, I still have hope and trust. If not, I’ll just keep working towards another plan. But at the end of the day, I still have hope.”
He added, “As an international student, it’s already hard to get a job over here.”
As a policy statement, the government has stated its intent to attract more young Bahamians back home.
Raychard Ferguson, 21, who finished his bachelor’s degree in multimedia management at Saint Leo University in Saint Leo, Florida, said he believes he may have applied for every job in the state.
Ferguson said while many have been worried about not having a graduation ceremony, he has been stressed out about his future.
“I was more focused on what my future entails. With my studies and aspirations of working in the film industry, it seemed like the worst possible scenario played out right before my eyes,” he said.
“All production stopped. Companies stopped hiring.
“[I’d] be lying if I said I haven’t been stressed out or didn’t have moments when my mental state wasn’t a good one or healthy one.”
Ferguson said it’s even harder because nobody he knows ever had to deal with anything like the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s weird because no one really knows what’s going on,” he said.
“[So], it’s just a big mess.”
In the Speech from the Throne in 2017, the Minnis administration noted that increasing employment rates was a priority. While the government said reducing youth unemployment was critical for securing the future of the country, it also noted that The Bahamas has a serious brain drain problem.
“My government is troubled by the perceived increase in talented young Bahamians seeking their fortunes permanently beyond the Commonwealth of The Bahamas,” the Minnis administration stated.
“No country can maximize its potential if many of its talented young people enlist their talents permanently in the development of economies elsewhere.”
Amid great uncertainty, some graduates are using the down time to prepare for when the economy fully opens.
Ana Smith, 20, who studied graphic design at Barry University in Miami, Florida, is back home on Long Island.
Smith said she planned to get a job in the United States.
“To be honest, in terms of COVID, as a graduate, it’s turned into more of a pro than a con, a blessing in a way, because if it weren’t for that, I would have been stressing right now,” she said.
“I would have not gotten anything I needed, a website, and all the social media stuff. I wouldn’t have gotten that done if it weren’t for COVID.”
She added, “I have a lot of time on my hands to work on my projects and my portfolio. I have time to get myself ready for when the country and the economy opens back up. I’ll have everything I need to find a job.”
Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest said there are still many opportunities, and encouraged recent graduates to remember that these circumstances are temporary.
He said graduates should look for internships and volunteering opportunities to gain skills and experience.
“This is a temporary situation,” he said.
“It will pass as crises have in the past. And as long as persons put themselves in a position to take advantage of opportunities as they come, I think they’ll be okay. Be encouraged.”
Youth unemployment was a challenge long before COVID-19 crisis