Employment Guide: Degree of difficulty

By Thomas Helgerman / Columnist

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In choosing a major to pursue, every college student faces a fundamental question: Should I study a field that I enjoy or should I study one in which I can get a job?

Undoubtedly, many students are fortunate enough to enjoy a subject that has rosy employment numbers. But, in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, unemployment rates have remained high across the board.

So, even for those determined to explore what they love, potential employment is always in the back of their minds — especially as senior year looms in front of them.

Traditionally, the media advises students to look at the post-graduation unemployment rates for their intended major to guide their decision. This advice is implicit in the numerous lists often published online, which detail the majors with the highest and lowest unemployment rates.

However, this is not the best way to go about choosing what to study, even for students choosing solely dependent on employment prospects. In particular, there are two fundamental flaws with looking only at unemployment numbers.

First, the unemployment rate itself is often a misleading statistic. In total, there are six different ways that that Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) measures unemployment, labeled U1 through U6. But, when discussing the unemployment, usually only U3 — the official unemployment rate — is reported by the mainstream media.

Simply put, U3 is calculated by counting the number of people actively looking for a full-time job, dividing that number by the labor force, and then multiplying by 100 to obtain a percentage. In general, this calculation doesn’t include workers who have settled for a part-time job, or discouraged workers who have given up the job search and dropped out of the labor force entirely.

Additionally, in the case of measuring employment by college majors, most media outlets don’t report important factors, like job satisfaction and job type. Thus, the statistic treats a mechanical engineer employed at Chrysler exactly the same as a mechanical engineer working a part-time food service job.

The second flaw is that this method doesn’t take into account how the job market actually functions.

Consider the general case of a recent college graduate who is attempting to land a job in his or her field. For this person to successfully become employed, three separate criteria must be met: a job must be available, this person must be the best person for this job (as measured by the firm hiring) and this person must be willing to relocate to where the job is located.

Let’s consider the final criterion first. At any given point in time, there are vacant positions and unemployed citizens willing and able to fill these vacancies. But this match doesn’t occur, perhaps because the laborer is unaware of the position or because he or she is unwilling to relocate to take the job.

A lack of labor mobility, in this sense, leads to inefficiencies in the job market: This causes unemployment when there should be none, theoretically. 

This inefficiency is present in the market for recent college graduates. Take, for example, two students with degrees in computer science and similar skill sets, one who studied at Stanford, the other who studied at Dartmouth. If they both attempt to find a job in the vicinity of their school, they might have widely differing success — Silicon Valley is a hotspot in the technology industry, whereas New Hampshire is not.

Now, let’s consider the second criterion — being the best person for the job. Consider the case of a student majoring in a subject with a low unemployment rate who is at the bottom of the bell curve when compared to his peers. Even though this student will obtain a degree in which graduates are largely employed, he still might find it hard to find a job because he has to compete against more qualified peers.

To illustrate this, I took a look at unemployment rates and GRE scores by major, as reported in 2013 by the Hard Times report out of Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy and the Educational Testing Service, respectively.

In conducting this analysis, I assumed that GRE scores are a relatively good proxy for ability level — that is, even though students taking the GRE most likely intend on graduate study and are, therefore, not entering the labor market, they have roughly the same skills as their peers who are.

As a motivating example, consider student M and student H who majored in mathematics and history, respectively. On its face, it seems that student M will have a much easier time finding a job: The unemployment rate for recent college graduates with a degree in mathematics is 5.9%, compared to 9.5% for a student with a degree in history.

However, the mean verbal and quantitative reasoning scores for students intending to study mathematics at the graduate level are 154 and 162, respectively, compared to 156 and 148 for their history counterparts. Thus, on balance, mathematics students are more competent at basic reasoning skills (as measured by the GRE). This implies that student M might have a more difficult time finding employment than student H, since student M’s competition will be roughly more skilled that student H’s peers.

With all of this in mind, the good news is that, by and large, college remains a worthwhile investment for students of all majors, despite a worsening job market. That being said, this reality may be changing, and, in light of these changes, students ought to consider more than the single unemployment number attached to their major.

Write to Thomas at teh18@pitt.edu

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