I remember reading an article roughly 25 years ago about recent college graduates who had jobs as bike messengers and coffee shop baristas. The author, the late William Henry, was asking if too many people were going to college.
People still want to know. Now questions about the employment prospects of recent college graduates are raised throughout the mainstream media continually, for good reason. There is a glut of college graduates but a shortage of jobs that college graduates want to take – or feel they deserve.
More and more of them are taking jobs that don’t require a college degree, which pushes people without degrees out of those jobs.
Alana Semuels, writing for the Los Angeles Times, compares past and present:
In 1970, only 2% of firefighters had college degrees; now 18% do, according to Richard Veddder, an economist at Ohio University. Fewer than 1% of taxi drivers had college degrees in 1970; now 15% do. About 25% of retail sales clerks have college degrees, Vedder said.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 48% of employed college graduates are in jobs that require less than a 4-year degree. For college graduates under 25, over half are in such jobs.
Not surprisingly, a third of 4-year college graduates don’t feel that college prepared them well for employment, as a report by McKinsey & Company found last year. Graduates who are most dissatisfied majored in visual and performing arts and liberal arts – although a third of science, business, finance, and economics graduates feel the same way.
McKinsey found that half of all graduates would choose either a different major or a different school if they had it to do all over again. Students most likely to wish they had majored in something else are those who studied visual and performing arts; language, literature, and social sciences; and accounting, economics, and finance.
Students who attended the nation’s top 100 schools fared somewhat better, but 4 in 10 settled for employment outside their intended area.
The group that fared worse than average in all measures were liberal arts graduates. They tend to be lower paid, deeper in debt, less happily employed, and slightly more likely to wish they’d done things differently.
In contrast, graduates from 4-year STEM programs were above average on most measures. They feel better prepared for employment, are more likely to be in a job that required their degree, are more likely to have an above-average income, and are more likely to choose the same major if they had it do over.
But Robert Charette warns against emphasizing STEM at the expense of other disciplines. He says that without a good grounding in the arts, literature, and history, STEM students narrow both their worldview and their career options. He cites a 2011 op-ed piece by Norman Augustine, the former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, who said:
In my position as CEO of a firm employing over 80,000 engineers, I can testify that most were excellent engineers. But the factors that most distinguished those who advanced in the organization was the ability to think broadly and read and write clearly.
Charette’s view is that everyone needs a solid grounding in science, engineering, and math. In that sense, he says, there is a STEM knowledge shortage. To fill that shortage you don’t necessarily need a college or university degree in a STEM discipline, but you do need to learn those subjects, from childhood until you head off to college or get a job.