Employment Guide: Stamatakis-Degree no job guarantee

By Nick Stamatakis

Think about your college diploma hanging on your wall after you graduate. The recession has… Think about your college diploma hanging on your wall after you graduate. The recession has taught us that this piece of paper might be useless, or at least a lot less valuable than we thought before. Having a bachelor’s degree no longer assures you a job.

This is, of course, partially because of the sluggish economy. It’s not just that college graduates can’t get a job — it’s that nobody can.

But before blaming this solely on a weak economy, remember what a recession actually is: a painful period of readjustment during which companies react to market shocks and ultimately — at least in theory — return leaner, more efficient and more capable of reacting in a new world.

This means companies typically rid themselves of less-crucial employees and keep the ones needed for the company to return to profitability. So in past recessions, unemployment fluctuated wildly among those without college degrees, whereas unemployment among those with bachelor’s degrees was largely resistant to market fluctuations.

The college graduates were productive enough, or at least seen as productive enough, to merit continued employment.

But that’s no longer the case.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, since 2007, unemployment among college graduates has increased from 2.0 percent to 4.6 percent, meaning the college graduate of today is twice as likely to be out of work as the college graduate of 2007. This is the same proportional increase in unemployment experienced by the general population. For the first recession in memory, employers are cutting positions at equal rates.

Things are even bleaker for graduates younger than 25 just entering the job market. Not only is unemployment here 9.6 percent, roughly the same as the national average, but according to the annual Recruiting Trends survey conducted by Michigan State, adjusted starting salaries of college graduates have decreased almost $2,000 since 1998 to around $34,000.

What is odd about the dismissal of college graduates is that companies desperately need the creative and innovative thinkers college is supposed to produce. With competition from countries like China, aging workforces, shifting markets and an uncertain and undulating cultural landscape, companies have their ultimate survival hinged on being able to quickly adapt. Yet if the hiring patterns of companies prove anything, college students don’t seem to be their preferred answer.

The results of the Michigan State survey in fact say that employers consider students produced by universities today less qualified and less prepared than those produced five years ago. Other complaints are poorer professional demeanor, less accurate expectations of workload and lower skills and competency. The only area where employers are impressed with recent graduates is resumé presentation.

Although Career Services departments deserve a pat on the back for this, resumé creation will not drive the economy of tomorrow. Recent graduating classes simply haven’t shown incredible promise.

College unemployment, therefore, might be best seen as a reflection of companies simply streamlining in reaction to a market shock. It isn’t a market problem — it’s a people problem. Not all college graduates add value to their companies, and now, upon revaluating hiring procedures, companies don’t hire as many.

Colleges themselves are not solely to blame for the percieved decreasing quality of graduates. The decline could stem from failing primary and secondary school systems or even from other factors, such as a decrease in stable, two-parent households.

But even looking at Pitt’s structure, it is hard not to place some responsibility on degree-granting institutions. In the College of Arts & Sciences for instance, a “broad, liberal education” consists of sitting in a half dozen or so big lectures, shoving facts into your head, taking some tests and leaving. After these large introductory classes, students specialize quickly in a major, possibly learning the intricacies of post-colonial feminist literature or Keynesian economics, but not ever really molding the interdisciplinary thinking skills and problem-solving abilities required by the job markets of the 21st century.

The system instead produces experts in specific fields who are often quite intelligent — good for technical majors and good for aspiring professors, but bad for the rest who will likely not even be working in their field after graduation.

None of this implies that colleges only produce mindless idiots, and there are huge exceptions to the mentioned trends.  But the market now shows that, to quote the Michigan study, just because you have a degree, “Don’t assume you are worth more than you are.” A college diploma doesn’t prove you can think outside the box or solve real problems, and employers have caught on.

It might only show that you can write a resumé.

E-mail Nick at [email protected]