Your Major Matters: The Plight of the Underemployed College Grad

We hear a lot of stories about college graduates working at Starbucks trying to pay back their loans, but how big of a problem is this really? It does seem to be true that more and more college graduates end up in low-skills positions. However, there is hope for the underemployed masses.

According to a recently published study, although underemployment rates for recent college grads are fairly high, this is not that unusual of a pattern.  Those who have graduated college in the past five years are more likely to be unemployed and underemployed than those who have been out of college for over five years.  Their findings seem to indicate that as workers gain experience and skills, their college education becomes more valuable, eventually leading them to a job more in line with their educational background.

However not all majors are created equal.  The study also finds that students who major in technological areas, such as engineering, health or computers, are more likely to find a job that requires a bachelor’s degree than those who major, say, in  liberal arts or hospitality.

Our results show that unemployment and underemployment rates differ markedly across majors: students majoring in fields that provide technical training, such as engineering or math and computers, or majoring in fields geared toward growing parts of the economy, such as education and health, have tended to do relatively well, even in today’s challenging labor market.

So what’s the solution?  Should students all switch their majors to engineering, pre-med, or computer science?  Not necessarily.  After all we also have to remember that students who choose more technological majors are also choosing fields that are more difficult and require a specific set of skills.  Not everyone is cut out to be an engineer, and you are going to do better in college if you choose a major that you are passionate about.

However, it should change the way you approach your college search.  It may make sense to pay top dollar for an engineering degree from a prestigious university, as you can be reasonably assured you have a good chance of landing a well-paying job soon after graduation.  Does it make sense to pay the same amount of money for a degree in communications, or hotel management?

What if you’re undecided about your major, which the majority of college students are?  These students especially should spend some time familiarizing themselves with the job market.  Not only will this give them ideas on what kind of jobs they might like, they will also be able to identify job fields that have the potential of employment after graduation.

Are you a recent college grad stuck in a low-paying, low-skills job?  Do your best to learn the skills you need to get in the career that you want, or work your way up the ladder.  After a few years spent in the job market, you are much more likely to land a higher-paying, high-skills position.  That should be encouraging to all college grads, even in the midst of a recession.