53% of Recent College Grads Are Jobless or Underemployed—How?

By Jordan Weissmann

A college diploma isn't worth what it used to be. To get hired, grads today need hard skills.

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Reuters

More than half of America's recent college graduates are either unemployed or working in a job that doesn't require a bachelor's degree, the Associated Press reported this weekend. The story would seem to be more evidence that, regardless of your education, the wake of the Great Recession has been a terrible time to be young and hunting for work.

But are we really becoming another Greece or Spain, a wasteland of opportunity for anybody under the age of 25? Not quite. What the new statistics really tell us about is the changing nature, and value, of higher education.

First, here's the nut of the AP's findings, which it derived with the help of researchers from Northeastern University, Drexel University, and the Economic Policy Institute, based on data from the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey and the U.S. Department of Labor:

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.

These numbers are hard to fathom, and the more you compare them to other measures of unemployment, the more bizarre they seem. Unfortunately, I don't have all of the data the AP was working with. But their analysis implies that about a quarter of the post-collegiate population is outright unemployed. By comparison, in December 2011, only a fifth of 16 to 19-year-old Americans couldn't get work. Meanwhile, according to the OECD, just 18.4 percent of all Americans under the age of 25 were unemployed in 2010. By those measures, college grads are actually faring worse in the job market than the overall youth population. They're also suffering terribly compared to the older college-educated populace, which has an unemployment rate of 4.2 percent. 

It's hard to imagine why any of this might be, other than that some recent grads may simply not be willing to take the low level jobs available to them. 

On the other hand, many obviously are. As the AP notes, recent graduates are now more likely to work as "waiters, waitresses, bartenders and food-service helpers than as engineers, physicists, chemists and mathematicians combined." This is a problem for any number of reasons, but here are two big ones: First, a degree is more expensive than ever, and students are piling on debt to finance their educations. It's much harder to pay back loans while working for tips at Buffalo Wild Wings than when you have a decent office job. Second, when college graduates take a low-paid, low-skill job, they're probably displacing a less educated worker, For every underemployed college degree holder, there's a decent chance someone with just a high school diploma is out of work entirely. 

So is a college education simply less valuable than in the past? In some respects, yes. According to the Census, the number of Americans under the age of 25 with at least a bachelor's degree has grown 38 percent since 2000. Not nearly enough jobs have been created to accommodate them, which has resulted in falling wages for young college graduates in the past decade, as well as the employment problems we're now seeing. 

That said, not all degrees are created equal. The AP reports that students who graduated out of the sciences or other technical fields, such as accounting, were much less likely to be jobless or underemployed than humanities and arts graduates. You know that old saw about how college is just about getting a fancy piece of paper? Not true. For an education to be worth anything these days, it needs to impart skills. 

When there were fewer graduates, a generic college degree used to be a valuable credential. Now that the market is flooded, diplomas count less, and specific skills count more. This means that, in many instances, associates and technical degrees may be more financially valuable than a liberal arts degree. After all, some of the fastest growing job categories are expected to be in so-called "middle-skill" positions such as nursing, which do not require a full, four-year education. It's one more sign that, for people seeking to fix America's employment picture, "college for all" is the wrong mantra. We need to be talking about "skills for all" instead. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/04/53-of-recent-college-grads-are-jobless-or-underemployed-how/256237/