Webster graduates’ future careers impacted by COVID-19

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Kat Rubush records her part in a virtual performance of the first scene of "La Cenerentola" by Gioachino Rossini. Rubush is just one of the Webster graduates impacted by the COVID-19 job market. Photo contributed by Kat Rubush.

Kat Rubush was scheduled to work at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis over the summer. Then, COVID-19 canceled the season.
“That scrapped plan A, and then there’s plans B and C and D and F, and now I’m just doing my best,” Rubush said.

Kat Rubush recently graduated from Webster University with a degree in Vocal Performance. Moving into the summer, Rubush had lined up a job with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL). She then planned to audition for various opportunities throughout the year before applying to graduate school.

But OTSL canceled its regular season, and most local organizations limited their opportunities to established artists, according to Rubush.

“That puts me in a pickle,” Rubush said. “That scrapped plan A, and then there’s plans B and C and D and F, and now I’m just doing my best.”

COVID-19 and its ensuing restrictions have impacted many jobs Webster students are studying for. However, not all jobs have been impacted by this pandemic in the same way.

The initial impact

Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development assistant commissioner for Performance & Strategy Veronica Gielazauskas said at the beginning of the pandemic, Missouri saw a relatively even impact on various industries. She explained this even toll on jobs throughout the state was due, in part, to the unknowns the new virus caused.

As states began phased reopenings with lessening yet still present restrictions on businesses like restaurants and entertainment venues, Gielazauskas said the unequal recovery became apparent.

“The most impacted industry due to [COVID-19] would be in leisure and hospitality, which includes, you know, entertainment, recreation, accommodations, food services and you can understand how that could be given the nature of [COVID-19] and social distancing,” Gielazauskas said. “That industry has continued to be the most negatively impacted and it still has a longest way to go in terms of recovery.”

Rubush experienced the impact of COVID-19 and the slowed recovery firsthand. She was grateful OTSL paid employees half of what they would have made during the season but was sad to have missed out on an opportunity to make connections with other artists. Rubush also said many organizations stopped in-person young artist programs in the wake of the pandemic. She suspected these programs will be one of the last to return – as the positions are not necessary for an opera theater to operate.

Kat Rubush records her part in a virtual performance of the first scene of “La Cenerentola” by Gioachino Rossini. Rubush is just one
of the Webster graduates impacted by the COVID-19 job market. Photo contributed by Kat Rubush.

“The plan was to go out and audition for those but I didn’t, like now I don’t really see any open calls or there are no announcements that they were hiring or auditioning so I just didn’t really try and that was draining or not draining but just, you know, a little crushing,” Rubush said.

Unlike performing arts, other industries have done better in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gielazauskas said the construction industry has experienced an increase in employment growth as more people stay at home and see things they want to fix or upgrade.

Animation professor Michael Long said streaming services like Netflix and HULU are also searching for more content to run. He read this increase in demand is due to people staying home and searching for TV shows or movies to watch. Along with the increase in demand, Long said animators can produce work remotely easier than live-action studios.

“It takes a long time to do [animation] but it can be continually done without interruption whereas the live action actors did have that problem and I don’t know what they are going to do now if they have more lockdowns,” Long said.

Hospitals have also experienced an increase in patient numbers due to the pandemic. Professor Stephanie Dribben works as a nurse practitioner at a hospital roughly one weekend a month and also teaches students who are working as nurses. She said the increase in patients did not automatically translate to an increase in hiring.

Dribben said hospitals initially had to cancel money-making procedures like elective surgeries to lower the risk of spreading COVID-19. She said in response, hospitals like Barnes-Jewish Hospital put a freeze on hiring and cut salaries for some existing employees.

According to Dribben, the hospital she works for is about where it was before the pandemic started, in terms of hiring and pay. She said this resurgence in hiring is due, in part, to nurses and doctors being exposed to or falling ill with COVID-19, and needing to be away from work.

“They’re trying to fill those spots. So, there is certainly a lot of opportunity even despite [COVID-19],” Dribben said. “I think the challenges with the pandemic are having to come into a situation that is already very high-stress and maybe very demanding as a very new – as a novice.”

Adapting to the Situation

Besides bringing new nurses and healthcare workers into an already stressful situation, Dribben said hospitals are also having to consider the business aspect of hiring. She explained training for nurses can take months and is costly to the hospitals.

“I think the struggle there is, are you still going to need the staff when the pandemic is over?” Dribben said. “You can’t really predict how many staff are going to be sick. You know, there are just so many unknowns.”

Along with hiring, Dribben said hospitals had to overcome the challenge of ensuring the healthcare workers stayed safe. Initially, hospitals faced a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). Dribben said hospitals now work to make sure there is some kind of PPE available to staff.

“I feel like the equipment that I need for the most part is there and available and there are certainly protocols … for the healthcare workers that are actually working in the [COVID-19] units,” Dribben said. “They are prioritized to ensure that they have all the PPE they need.”

Animation majors also face the challenge of not having the equipment they need, according to Long. He said people can draw and create the animations almost anywhere but processing and adding audio can require equipment which is normally found only in studios.

For example, Long said sometimes, the software animation studios use cannot be installed on employees’ personal computers. Moreover, animations are normally contained in very large files which can take a long time to send. Long said studios – and even Webster – are trying out “virtual desktops,” which allow people to access software located at work or school remotely.

Long said overall, though, animation is proving to be a career that can be done remotely.

“I know from having read articles they have told people basically go home and we’ll figure out a way for you to do this at home but we want everybody to be safe,” Long said.

Performing arts have also been learning to transition to online performances and adapt, according to Rubush. Rubush is involved in a short virtual performance of the first scene of “La Cenerentola” by Gioachino Rossini. While she and her friends got a grant for the performance, Rubush said overall, it is harder for artists to ask for money when their work is online rather than in person.

Rubush is putting her goals of performing and graduate school on hold, for now. She is currently teaching as a substitute and a tutor, and plans on traveling to teach English to refugees and immigrants in the near future.

“Kind of what is keeping me going is like with operatic voices, it takes a while to mature, so I don’t feel like I am missing out,” Rubush said. “I am not giving up on anything. I’m just, you know, adapting and exploring other areas before I come back.”

The Lessons Learned

Rubush said seeing how the performing arts adapted to the pandemic showed her the arts will go on. She said many artists are continuing to perform because it is what they love to do.

Dribben, meanwhile, said she hopes the pandemic shows everyone the importance of nurses and other healthcare workers.

“I mean it is a good career despite – I mean there are certainly stressors with it but it is an incredible career,” Dribben said. “It is an incredible feeling being able to help people.”

Long said while working with others in animation allows people to connect and try out ideas, he hopes the pandemic helps teach his students to be more independent in their creations. He also pointed out there are still many tutorials and learning opportunities he hopes students will continue to take advantage of.

“I often use the chess analogy,” Long said. “I say I can teach you chess in a half an hour but to be a master? It might take a lifetime.”

For current students and recent graduates, Gielazauskas offered a word of encouragement. Finish your degree.

“While things might be difficult in the short term, in the long term, the history is on the side of – both from ability to be employed and from wage opportunities for – those who are able to go forward and complete a degree,” Gielazauskas said.

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Cas Waigand
Managing Editor | + posts