By Jeffrey Selingo, Professor of Practice/Special Adviser, Arizona State University, and Visiting Scholar, Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities
It used to be that a college degree was the golden ticket in the job market. As long as students graduated with some sort of credential, a solid job and a clear career track were often waiting for them on the other side.
That’s not the case anymore. For sure, a college degree is more important than ever to ensure sustainable earnings in a job market that provides few rewards for those with just a high school diploma. But even college graduates are struggling to find a foothold in today’s fast-moving global economy. Nearly half of new graduates are underemployed, working jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Recent college graduates have earned the moniker of the “boomerang generation” because they are often forced to return to live in their childhood home to make ends meet. Today’s college graduates don’t achieve financial independence, defined as reaching the median wage, until they turn 30, according to a report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. In the early ’80s, they hit that mark by their 26th birthday.
Based on my research for my new book, There Is Life After College, there are three primary reasons new college graduates are taking longer to launch into jobs and careers today than in the past.
1. The campus recruiting game has changed. In the ’80s, campus recruiting was dominated by three primary industries — manufacturing, retail and finance — and a few big corporations controlled each of those sectors. That meant the big employers set the recruiting calendar, and everyone else followed along. It was an easy process for both students and campuses to understand and plug into.
There are more employers today, each of them recruiting fewer students, and all of them have specific needs and different timetables for students to keep track of. Companies that build things no longer dominate the economy; business and professional services that reorganize those old-line companies now do.
Nonprofit and government agencies also loom over hiring in a way they didn’t in the past. Teach for America, AmeriCorps and several other nonprofit organizations fill spots in the top 15 destinations for graduates today. None of those spots were occupied by nonprofit groups in the ’80s. In a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, more than 40 percent of the class of 2014 said they wanted to work for the government at the federal, state or local level.
2. Employers want job skills, not just a degree. In the old days, Fortune 500 companies put new hires into “rotational programs” that allowed them to move around different departments to learn about the company and its culture, as well as various jobs. Many of those programs have been eliminated, even as employers have raised the bar on the skills workers need to start a job on Day One.
Young adults are largely on their own to acquire those skills in college, and they often come through outside-the-classroom activities, such as undergraduate research, student activities and athletics, service learning, and most of all, internships.
Internships are now a critical cog in the recruiting wheel for Fortune 500 companies and for many smaller companies too. Today employers hire as full-time workers around 50 percent of the interns who had worked for them before they graduated, according to the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. At large companies (more than 10,000 employees) and in some industries (construction, consulting, accounting and scientific services) the share of interns who get full-time offers is growing every year, closer to 75 percent at several of them.
This new emphasis on the internship has upended the traditional recruiting calendar on campuses nationwide, and not only at the elite universities. With more companies hiring from their intern pools, recruiters have shifted their attention from hiring soon-to-graduate seniors as full-timers to scoping out juniors, even as early as the fall term, to be interns the next summer.
“There was a time when 50 employers came to recruit for interns,” said Patricia Rose, director of Penn’s career center. “Now we have 180. They want to wrap up talent before anyone else.”
3. A fast-moving economy means students and colleges need to keep up and evolve. Entire industries have been disrupted by technology and globalization in recent years, even stalwarts like law, accounting and medicine. Yet colleges are under more pressure than ever to help their students find precise routes into careers, even when those routes don’t exist anymore.
In a 2015 survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education, two-thirds of college leaders said that more discussions about job preparation were occurring on their campuses compared with just three years earlier. Entire industries are disappearing almost overnight, and legacy companies are quickly changing course. In one recent year, Procter & Gamble hired graduates from 86 different majors at Michigan State University, reflecting both their new lines of business and their eagerness to hedge their bets to find the right match.
Higher education is quickly becoming less of a phase we enter at 18 years old and exit at 22. Instead, the idea of college is turning into a platform for lifelong learning that we will step off and on when we need further education and training to get ahead in our jobs or switch careers.
Helping students understand these new rules around launching into careers after college will help them better prepare themselves for today’s job market and get more value out of their degree.