17 Sep

Young Graduates Struggle Whether They Majored in Engineering or Philosophy

For young Americans trying to make their way in a tough economy, getting a skill that’s in-demand will help — but it’s no guarantee of a steady job.


The Wall Street Journal over the weekend reported on the struggles of America’s young adults, who are coming of age in the worst economy since the Great Depression. Five years after the financial crisis, the unemployment rate for Americans under 25 is 15.6%. Those lucky enough to have jobs have seen their inflation-adjusted wages fall, and many are stuck working part-time.



The story focused on a pair of employed-but-struggling 23-year-olds in St. Louis, Emily Koehler, a graduate of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Derek Wetherell, who is three semesters shy of a degree from the same school. The friends both majored in social sciences (Mr. Wetherell in political science, Ms. Koehler in an interdisciplinary mix of political science and sociology). That led several readers to wonder whether Mr. Wetherell and Ms. Koehler might be better off if they had studied something with more real-world applications — and, by extension, whether this generation’s struggles are at least partly of their own making.


“Are you oblivious to the idea that maybe what these people choose to do with their learning years has something to do with their inability to get a job?” read one fairly typical reader email.


It’s absolutely true that college majors matter. In 2010-2011, unemployment rates for recent college graduates ranged from 4.8% for those with nursing degrees to 14.7% for those studying “information systems,” according to a May report from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce. (Political science was indeed near the bottom of the list, with an 11.1% unemployment rate.) What you study affects what you earn, as well: The median wage for recent engineering graduates was $54,000, compared to $30,000 for humanities and liberal arts majors. The earnings gap was even wider for graduates with more work experience.


Such figures can be misleading, however. For one thing, they lump together graduates regardless of where they went to school or how they did there. There’s also a reason many students choose not to major in math and science –those subjects are hard. Moreover, it isn’t always obvious which degrees will turn out to offer the best job prospects four years later; many students who enrolled in nursing programs in the belief they’d offer a sure-fire career have discovered that the nursing shortage turned into a glut while they were in school.


Beyond such intricacies, however, lies a larger truth: This remains an unusually challenging job market for practically everyone, especially the young. Engineers and computer programmers have it better than most, but even most of them face unemployment rates well above their prerecession levels. Wages have been stagnant for all but a few of the most specialized workers. There are 2.7 million fewer employed young people today than there should be based on prerecession employment levels — it’s safe to say not all of those missing workers should be java developers.


Indeed, recent research from economists at Yale University found that while the wage gap between college majors usually grows during recessions, that was less true this time around — the recent recession was so severe that its affects were felt across the board.


Still, there’s no doubt that some members of this “lost generation” are more lost than others. Those with readily marketable skills are more likely to be employed, and more likely to earn a decent wage, than those without. But to some extent, that’s the point: In a time of low unemployment and healthy job growth, young people have a chance to overcome early mistakes, whether small, like picking the wrong major, or large, like failing to complete school. The prolonged weak recovery means this generation hasn’t had that opportunity.

Read 3397 times Last modified on 18 Sep
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