About three million American university graduates will enter the job market this year. And with unemployment currently at a 10-year low, it's a good time to be graduating, says Nicole Smith, chief economist at Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW).
"We are at one of the lowest unemployment rates we've had since May of 2007, so what that means for the graduating class of 2017 is that the likelihood of getting a job is really, really good," she said.
The U.S. Labor Department says unemployment for those with a four-year bachelor's degree or higher is 2.5 percent, compared to the overall jobless rate of 4.5 percent. For those with a high school diploma or less, the average unemployment rate is 6.8 percent.
Watch: Job Prospects for 2017 College Grads, Best in More Than a Decade
Demand for graduates with associate, bachelor's and master's degrees is particularly strong in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, according to the latest survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
However, Smith says, a four-year degree is not necessary to compete in today's economy.
"There are about 28 million jobs or so in the U.S. economy that are good-paying jobs; that are high-skilled jobs for people without a B.A," she said.
While higher learning can give new workers the upper hand, Smith says almost a third of students with bachelor's degrees are under-unemployed.
"So we have to do this cakewalk, this tightrope walk, to understand exactly what the market demands," she said.
Options without college degree
A survey of the hottest employment sectors in 2017 shows some of the fastest-growing fields don't require a four-year degree, according to Bankrate.com senior analyst Mark Hamrick.
"You don't have to have a college degree for some of those technical jobs, where, let's say, a kind of therapy might be involved — physical or occupational therapy," he said.
Health care and service-oriented jobs aimed at the needs of a graying population are bound to remain strong as baby boomers — those born between 1946 to 1964 — continue to retire. But, Hamrick says, some skills are harder to learn in school.
"One of the skills which has been in strong demand really involves people skills — closing the deal, sales … business strategy; charting the course for a viable enterprise, that's something that's needed," he said.
What is clear is that jobs that fueled the economy three or four decades ago are not the same jobs driving the economy today. In the 1970s, manufacturing accounted for nearly two of every five jobs; today, those manufacturing jobs account for fewer than one in 10.
"The types of manufacturing jobs that remain are jobs that are really high-skill, high-tech, high-demand manufacturing jobs. So those jobs require a lot more skills than their predecessors did," Smith said.
Life-long learning key
Today's job market also differs from the past because rapid technological and societal change demands a commitment to life-long learning, which means that getting a degree is just the beginning, according to Smith.
"Each year, there's a new … version of technology that we must use," she said. "So what the students need to be aware of is that they will need to come back to re-up their certification, to re-up their skills."
Participating in today's economy also means older and newer workers must be willing to move where the jobs are. Demand for workers is greatest where local economies are dynamic and where populations are growing, says Bankrate.com's Hamrick. That means the exodus toward bigger cities on the East and West coasts will continue.
"That's a process that's accelerating," Hamrick said. "It's not slowing down, and so having the right skills, going where the jobs are located — those are the keys to obtaining and maintaining employment."
The most recent jobs report shows the U.S. economy added 211,000 jobs in April, and unemployment fell to 4.4 percent. That's a sharp contrast to the dark days that followed the 2008 financial crisis, when the U.S. economy was losing 800,000 jobs a month and unemployment peaked at 10 percent.