WASHINGTON — The college class of
2012 is in for a rude welcome to the world of work.
A weak labor market already has left
half of young college graduates either jobless or underemployed in positions
that don't fully use their skills and knowledge.
Young adults with bachelor's degrees
are increasingly scraping by in lower-wage jobs – waiter or waitress,
bartender, retail clerk or receptionist, for example – and that's confounding
their hopes a degree would pay off despite higher tuition and mounting student
An analysis of government data
conducted for The Associated Press lays bare the highly uneven prospects for
holders of bachelor's degrees.
Opportunities for college graduates
While there's strong demand in
science, education and health fields, arts and humanities flounder. Median
wages for those with bachelor's degrees are down from 2000, hit by
technological changes that are eliminating midlevel jobs such as bank tellers.
Most future job openings are projected to be in lower-skilled positions such as
home health aides, who can provide personalized attention as the U.S.
Taking underemployment into
consideration, the job prospects for bachelor's degree holders fell last year
to the lowest level in more than a decade.
"I don't even know what I'm
looking for," says Michael Bledsoe, who described months of fruitless job
searches as he served customers at a Seattle coffeehouse. The 23-year-old
graduated in 2010 with a creative writing degree.
Initially hopeful that his college
education would create opportunities, Bledsoe languished for three months
before finally taking a job as a barista, a position he has held for the last
two years. In the beginning he sent three or four resumes day. But, Bledsoe
said, employers questioned his lack of experience or the practical worth of his
major. Now he sends a resume once every two weeks or so.
Bledsoe, currently making just above
minimum wage, says he got financial help from his parents to help pay off
student loans. He is now mulling whether to go to graduate school, seeing few
other options to advance his career. "There is not much out there, it
seems," he said.
His situation highlights a widening
but little-discussed labor problem. Perhaps more than ever, the choices that
young adults make earlier in life – level of schooling, academic field and
training, where to attend college, how to pay for it – are having long-lasting
"You can make more money on
average if you go to college, but it's not true for everybody," says
Harvard economist Richard Freeman, noting the growing risk of a debt bubble
with total U.S. student loan debt surpassing $1 trillion. "If you're not
sure what you're going to be doing, it probably bodes well to take some job, if
you can get one, and get a sense first of what you want from college."
Andrew Sum, director of the Center
for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University who analyzed the numbers,
said many people with a bachelor's degree face a double whammy of rising
tuition and poor job outcomes. "Simply put, we're failing kids coming out
of college," he said, emphasizing that when it comes to jobs, a college
major can make all the difference. "We're going to need a lot better job
growth and connections to the labor market, otherwise college debt will
By region, the Mountain West was
most likely to have young college graduates jobless or underemployed – roughly
3 in 5. It was followed by the more rural southeastern U.S., including Alabama,
Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. The Pacific region, including Alaska,
California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington, also was high on the list.
On the other end of the scale, the
southern U.S., anchored by Texas, was most likely to have young college
graduates in higher-skill jobs.
The figures are based on an analysis
of 2011 Current Population Survey data by Northeastern University researchers
and supplemented with material from Paul Harrington, an economist at Drexel
University, and the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. They
rely on Labor Department assessments of the level of education required to do
the job in 900-plus U.S. occupations, which were used to calculate the shares
of young adults with bachelor's degrees who were "underemployed."
About 1.5 million, or 53.6 percent,
of bachelor's degree-holders under the age of 25 last year were jobless or
underemployed, the highest share in at least 11 years. In 2000, the share was
at a low of 41 percent, before the dot-com bust erased job gains for college
graduates in the telecommunications and IT fields.
Out of the 1.5 million who
languished in the job market, about half were underemployed, an increase from
the previous year.
Broken down by occupation, young
college graduates were heavily represented in jobs that require a high school
diploma or less.
In the last year, they were more
likely to be employed as waiters, waitresses, bartenders and food-service
helpers than as engineers, physicists, chemists and mathematicians combined
(100,000 versus 90,000). There were more working in office-related jobs such as
receptionist or payroll clerk than in all computer professional jobs (163,000
versus 100,000). More also were employed as cashiers, retail clerks and
customer representatives than engineers (125,000 versus 80,000).
According to government projections
released last month, only three of the 30 occupations with the largest
projected number of job openings by 2020 will require a bachelor's degree or
higher to fill the position – teachers, college professors and accountants.
Most job openings are in professions such as retail sales, fast food and truck
driving, jobs which aren't easily replaced by computers.
College graduates who majored in
zoology, anthropology, philosophy, art history and humanities were among the
least likely to find jobs appropriate to their education level; those with
nursing, teaching, accounting or computer science degrees were among the most
In Nevada, where unemployment is the
highest in the nation, Class of 2012 college seniors recently expressed
feelings ranging from anxiety and fear to cautious optimism about what lies
With the state's economy languishing
in an extended housing bust, a lot of young graduates have shown up at job
placement centers in tears. Many have been squeezed out of jobs by more
experienced workers, job counselors said, and are now having to explain to
prospective employers the time gaps in their resumes.
"It's kind of scary," said
Cameron Bawden, 22, who is graduating from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas
in December with a business degree. His family has warned him for years about
the job market, so he has been building his resume by working part time on the
Las Vegas Strip as a food runner and doing a marketing internship with a local
Bawden said his friends who have
graduated are either unemployed or working along the Vegas Strip in service
jobs that don't require degrees. "There are so few jobs and it's a small
city," he said. "It's all about who you know."
Any job gains are going mostly to
workers at the top and bottom of the wage scale, at the expense of
middle-income jobs commonly held by bachelor's degree holders. By some studies,
up to 95 percent of positions lost during the economic recovery occurred in
middle-income occupations such as bank tellers, the type of job not expected to
return in a more high-tech age.
David Neumark, an economist at the
University of California-Irvine, said a bachelor's degree can have benefits
that aren't fully reflected in the government's labor data. He said even for
lower-skilled jobs such as waitress or cashier, employers tend to value
bachelor's degree-holders more highly than high-school graduates, paying them
more for the same work and offering promotions.
In addition, U.S. workers
increasingly may need to consider their position in a global economy, where
they must compete with educated foreign-born residents for jobs. Longer-term
government projections also may fail to consider "degree inflation,"
a growing ubiquity of bachelor's degrees that could make them more commonplace
in lower-wage jobs but inadequate for higher-wage ones.
That future may be now for Kelman
Edwards Jr., 24, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., who is waiting to see the returns on
his college education.
After earning a biology degree last
May, the only job he could find was as a construction worker for five months
before he quit to focus on finding a job in his academic field. He applied for
positions in laboratories but was told they were looking for people with
"I thought that me having a
biology degree was a gold ticket for me getting into places, but every other
job wants you to have previous history in the field," he said. Edwards,
who has about $5,500 in student debt, recently met with a career counselor at
Middle Tennessee State University. The counselor's main advice: Pursue further
"Everyone is always telling
you, `Go to college,'" Edwards said. "But when you graduate, it's
kind of an empty cliff."
Associated Press writers Manuel
Valdes in Seattle; Travis Loller in Nashville, Tenn.; Cristina Silva in Las
Vegas; and Sandra Chereb in Carson City, Nev., contributed to this report.