Kasim Kabbara is a first-generation college graduate who studied abroad in China. The 24-year-old double majored in television, film and radio, and the African-American diaspora at the University of Texas. And yet this past spring, none of his skills and experiences came across in his third round of interviews for a competitive summer internship at SiriusXM.

Interviewing remotely, Kabbara never met with a recruiter at SiriusXM. Instead, the company sent a link instructing him to record himself answering a few interview questions on the spot. He says he was given 30 seconds to practice and two minutes to record how he would “describe himself” – with no second takes.

“You get these generic questions with short one-minute intervals, and it is hard for me to say all of the other stuff that makes me interesting,” Kabbara says.

Kabbara, about to enter this second year of graduate studies at Georgetown University, is just one of the millions of young workers and students around the world who are struggling to enter the workforce for the first time this year. For more than a year, the COVID-19 pandemic-induced economic downturns have disrupted young workers and students entering countries’ workforces.

As a result, young adult unemployment is growing in an age where global economic inequality was already on the rise well before the pandemic hit. And the pandemic recession has had a disproportionate impact on the job prospects of young workers. According to the International Labor Organization, the decline in employment rates in 2020 among young workers internationally was 2.5 times greater than that experienced by adults.

“COVID-19 did not create a new problem, but laid bare already concerning levels of youth unemployment and underemployment in certain regions of the world,” says Chris Maclay, the director of youth employment at Mercy Corps.

Now, facing growing inequality coupled with limited job and internship opportunities available in many countries, young workers are forced to compete fiercely with their peers to stand out from the pile of hundreds of applicants. This age group also lacks the professional and economic resources necessary to weather such a disruptive global crisis.

Fierce Competition, Limited Opportunities

Late spring and early summer typically marks the beginning of internship season, where hopeful university students can be found grabbing coffees, manning the phones, writing drafts and honing other key skills needed to move up in their chosen profession.

However, this year’s intern season looks quite different, as entry-level jobs and internships have largely moved to remote work, and as increased competition and limited opportunities have left many students frantically trying to land any gig they can.

“I’ve sent 43 applications in total in 2021. Thirty of those I’ve not received a reply yet, and I probably will never receive one,” says Carlo Cozzi, 21, a sophomore at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy.

Last summer, Cozzi says he watched Bocconi cohorts ahead of him struggle to land internships and jobs as the pandemic brought economic life to a halt. Determined not to meet the same fate, he decided to begin applying to summer 2021 internships last October.

Yet in December, he hit his first roadblock: the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union. The timing could not have been worse for Cozzi. He applied to several internships in the U.K. in the fall of 2020 before Brexit rules became effective. By December, he was receiving rejection emails from his dream firms saying that he was no longer eligible for work.

Now months behind where he had hoped to be, Cozzi pivoted his focus to other EU countries, only to find he was not only competing with his own academic class for entry-level internships, but he was also up against students from several classes above him who missed out on the same opportunities the summer before.

In parts of the Middle East and Africa, the job opportunities are even more limited than in Europe and the United States due to developing countries struggling to provide for young, booming populations. According to Maclay of Mercy Corps, 18 million young people entered the job market in sub-Saharan Africa last year, but only 3 million formal jobs were created.

“This is a huge gap, and it is about to get even wider,” Maclay said in an emailed response. “By 2030 there will be 30 million young people entering the labor market each year.”