Nearly half of college graduates take a first job that does not require a college degree, hurting their long-term income and advancement, according to a recent study.
The negative impact is persistent, says research from Burning Glass Technologies, a software company that researches the labor market, and the Strada Institute for the Future of Work. About two-thirds of graduates whose first jobs do not require a degree will remain "underemployed," as the researchers call it, five years later. Five years after that, about three-fourths of the underemployed are likely to stay that way.
And the underemployed earn $10,000 less than those who took a job that requires a college degree.
The high percentage of underemployed college graduates — 43 percent — is not surprising, says Michelle Weise, senior vice president of workforce strategies at the Strada Institute. Some of the data came from the recession of 2008, when the U.S. economy was shrinking and job opportunities were limited.
How to avoid underemployment
Both students and schools are responsible for solving this problem, Weise says.
Students need to plot their career path, she says, starting before they graduate. New graduates should not accept the first job offer they receive, if that is economically possible, she says. Wait for a job that could lead to better future positions.
Choosing a field of study where jobs are plentiful is helpful, she says. Graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics are less likely to be underemployed, studies show.
But students who earn degrees in liberal arts — history, English, psychology — may have a harder time finding a job that uses their abilities. Weiss says that colleges and universities have to do better to support liberal arts graduates in their job search.
"Something we have struggled with, especially since the Great (2008) Recession, is that we are not great at translating what those … skills are that students are developing in those liberal arts programs and how they translate into the workforce," Weise told VOA. "We're not good at showing our students, before they go on the market, how … marketable they really are."
Peter Cappelli is a professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He says asking students to start preparing earlier to enter the workforce is only part of the solution.
"We're telling them, 'Pick your career when you're 17, and you're applying to college,'" Cappelli says. "And then if you happen to pick the wrong one and you graduate and there's no demand there, you're out of luck.
"Or you could get a very practical degree that helps get you an immediate job, but you haven't learned anything that will help you later in your career," he says.
Cappelli notes that in recent years, colleges and universities have worked hard to make higher education available to more people. But as the number of degree-holders in the country has increased, graduates may find it harder to make themselves appear more desirable than others with a similar degree.
Also, employers have increasingly come to expect more from graduates, somewhat unfairly, Cappelli says. Many advertisements for positions that formerly would be a good fit for recent graduates now ask for years of experience.
Cappelli says that, to make themselves more competitive, college students might gain skills outside their college major. Liberal arts students might consider taking classes in computer programming during the summer break.
Is higher education still a good investment?
Nicole Smith says she understands why students and parents would ask if pursuing higher education is worth it.
Smith, the chief economist for the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce in Washington, says a traditional four-year degree is not the only path to a meaningful and well-paying job. And as the cost of higher education rises, families need to think carefully about the investment.
But the majority of well-paying jobs in the future will require some kind of degree, she says.
"We don't want to discourage people from even stepping foot through the door or to discourage people from even thinking of that opportunity," Smith said.
Some graduates choose jobs that do not require a college degree so they can explore their interests and identities. This exploration may help them focus their career desires and goals, Smith says.