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New College Graduates Struggle
in the Great Recession Economy

5 Things You Shouldn’t Say to a Recent College Graduate

“What Can You Do With THAT Degree?”
“Do You Have a Job Lined Up?”
“You Should Go to Law School”
“The Economy Has Been Bad Before. You’ll Get Through It.”
“My Fill-in-the-Blank Relative Just Got Out of College, and She’s Doing Great.” —Real Simple magazine

Then what do you say to the new alum who spent upwards of $200,000 for an education that no employer seems to value?  A 2011 graduate recently lamented to me, “What was the point of college if I can’t get a job?”  For her, college was supposed to be a path to upward mobility.  That’s part of the American dream, right? The Great Recession shattered that dream for many. More than half of recent college grads believe that their generation will do less well than their parents’ generation, according to a new study of college graduates from the classes of 2006 to 2010.

“Unfulfilled Expectations: Recent College Graduates Struggle in a Troubled Economy” provides an in-depth look at the experiences of young adults as they begin their careers, many in jobs that did not require a college degree.  Some key findings of the study, conducted by the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University:

  • 82% are working, although only 53% hold fulltime jobs
  • 21% are attending graduate school either part or full time
  • 14% are looking for a full-time job
  • 16% are not employed in any fashion
  • Median salary in the first job is $30,000.
  • Men earn more than women with a median of $33,150, as compared to $28,000 for women.
  • Students who had internships or work experiences related to their studies earn roughly 20% more than those who did not.
  • Students who were able to find work in a area at least somewhat related to their major field received higher salaries in their first job($35,000)  compared those who did not ($25,000).
  • On average, there was a 10% earnings “penalty” for college graduates obtaining their first job during the recession, compared with those who entered the workforce just three years earlier.
  • 30 percent said their course of study in college was not very or not-at-all related to the job that they took75 percent say they would have done some things differently while in college, including being more careful about their choice of major (48 percent), done more internships or worked part-time (47 percent) and started looking for work while still in college (38 percent).

The study’s findings help put in perspective for parents the challenges their adult children face in this daunting labor market.  Mothering21.com talked about the study with Dr. Carl Van Horn, a workforce expert and the director of the Heldrich Center.  Dr. Van Horn also offered advice for parents who watch as their new grads send out resume after resume.

Q. Let’s talk about the study and some of the findings.  Why do women still make less than men?

A. There are two major reasons. Women more frequently than men chose majors that don’t pay as well.  For example, social work, one of the lowest paid professions, is a  major predominately selected by women while conversely the percent of women in computer science is 15 percent. Women are choosing occupations that are not compensated at the same level as engineering and the sciences.  Another reason is that women aren’t as good negotiating the job search process as men.  They don’t demand as high as a salary.

Q. So women—and many young men too—are lacking in what you term “labor market savvy.”  Can you explain that and how parents might help guide their adult children?

A. I am a strong believer in informed choice–not channeling, not pushing, not forcing–but informing so young people can make these choices on their own with good advice. Most parents can’t provide all that advice but they can certainly help their child find the information and connect them with people who can help.

Being labor market savvy means that young adults should start thinking very seriously about their careers no later than sophomore year. Unfortunately it’s often postponed until senior year and then it’s often too late because they’ve unwittingly made choices that can influence the rest of their careers and put them behind or shut off opportunities. For example, many students don’t take math or science courses that they may need later for graduate school.

Another example of labor markey savvy: Students who want to go to law school need to know that for most lawyers it’s not a highly remunerative profession.  It is for those who win the lottery and go to big law firms.  But the average lawyer makes closer to $60,000 a year.  They’re not the people on “LA Law” charging $500 or $600 an hour.

Q. Internships and working while in school in a field related to the major pay off for new grads in helping get that first job. A resume with simply good grades doesn’t cut it anymore. Why is that?

That reflects on how the labor market works today.  If you go back 25 years most businesses had what was called management training or some sort of probationary period during which they paid people to learn. That’s not true anymore.  Now companies can get away with saying, “Hey, if you’re not ready to work I’m not interested in you.”  You have to be productive from day one. One of the ways you do that is through an internship or a part-time job to make yourself attractive to the employer.  They want a demonstration of your ability to perform and the way they get that demonstration is looking at your resume that doesn’t include just taking classes.

Q. What should a young adult consider before taking the first job that’s offered?

A. Some people don’t have the choice whether to take the job.  They need income to live and to pay off loans.  If you do have choice then the question is “Does the job provide an opportunity to learn something marketable and helpful to me down the road?”  The answer to that varies.  It’s connecting that job experience to where you’re headed. If you’re interested in business then being barista at a Starbucks probably isn’t a bad thing because in a few years you could become the assistant manager at the store and then leverage that into something else or use it to learn entrepreneurship.  There are jobs that on the surface don’t look terribly good but actually can be thought of as building blocks.

Q. Many young adults worry that taking a first job with a low salary locks them into low earnings for life.

A. The best way to change your salary trajectory is to change jobs. Most of the time one is not rewarded for staying in same place. It’s not a major negative mark if you move frequently when you’re young,  and most employers know that people in their twenties move around a lot.  But you have to have a plausible explanation of why you moved if you’re asked and one of most reasonable is that “I moved to get a better salary.”

Q. Your survey found that 62 percent of graduates expect that they will need more education to further their careers. What should they consider before enrolling in graduate school?

A.  They should ask the question, “Why am I  going to graduate school?”  very carefully because graduate school is very expensive and a minimum of two years.  You can wind up going to graduate school and coming out with another huge bill and being no better off than when you started. So due diligence applies just as it does to any other important life decision.

Q. You wrote in an opinion piece that for young adults “Their feelings of unfulfilled expectations are not only understandable, but completely justified.” So what can you say to them?

A. Basically you have misfortune of having graduated during the worst economy in 60 years.  A lot is beyond your control but there are ways to adjust to this reality and you can overcome it in  ways that you probably didn’t consider when you entered college. There are jobs out there, there are opportunities. Most of you will eventually succeed in getting a full-time job.  It’s just going to be slower and not as smooth a process as it might have been five or ten years ago.

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