Choose Majors Wisely, as Job Markets Evolve

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Published July 31, 2013

| FOXBusiness

In an economic recovery and job market that is anything but stable, college grads are finding that the degrees they once thought were a sure bet, are anything but.

A new “Hard Times” report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce  finds that a college degree gives job seekers an advantage for landing employment than those with high school diplomas with unemployment rates of 8.9% versus 22.9%, respectively, but once stable majors for employment are now more volatile.

For example, art majors currently have a lower unemployment rate at 11.1% than those in the architecture industry at 13.9%. Arts degree holders also have lower unemployment rates than those in certain areas of technology, specifically those with information systems degrees who face a 14.7% unemployment rate. The survey concludes that workers that use computer information at work rather than develop it, are more susceptible to economic fluctuations.

Georgetown analyzed data from 2010 and 2011 from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community survey. June’s job report from the Labor Department showed the unemployment rate was 7.6% and 3.9% for those with a bachelor’s degree.

This relative instability in the labor market is likely a short-lived phenomenon, says Jeff Strohl, director of research at the Center on Education and the Workforce, even if it feels like it’s dragging on for recent graduates.  

“A lot of sluggish business recovery issues are hurting them,” he says. “People make decisions based on the current labor market when they enroll in college.”

Often, when people graduate with their degree, the job market tends to look a lot different than it did when they first picked their major. Architects, for example, struggle with finding work today because of the drawn-out housing recovery. Other industries, including engineering and the sciences (5.4% unemployment) and psychology and social work (7.3% unemployment) are experiencing an increase in hiring.

A ‘Skills Market’

John Challenger, president of outplacement firm Challenger Gray and Christmas, says today’s job market demands applicable skills, which is why he is skeptical that arts and theater majors have a better chance at landing work than those with tangible skills in specific industries.

“I hear this from companies consistently, as well as from HR executives and recruiters: Students that graduate with degrees and knowhow in computer technology, with programming skills, are in demand. They can normally land more quickly with lower rates of unemployment than arts and drama majors.”

Having hard skills allows grads to put them immediately to use after leaving school, he says.

“It’s someone with real know-how. You can’t have a history major in a computer programming position,” Challenger says. “I was a history major in college—you may have writing skills, and certainly have the skills you learn in college about working hard and being organized, learning to think and analyze—those are valuable, but more fundamental skills. They are not easily translatable in that way.”

What About Grad School?

In an economy where not even a bachelor’s degree means a guaranteed job, is a grad degree worth paying for? Georgetown’s study points to yes, finding those with graduate degrees had lower levels of unemployment, at just 3%.

Strohl says graduate degrees are more of a necessity today than they were in the past.

“Grad degrees are still a fairly good bet,” he says. “If you erased the recession out of the picture, we have been seeing a long-term phenomenon that graduate degrees slowly have been replacing or gaining importance, compared to bachelors’ degrees across the spectrum. You need them more today than you use to. Long-term unemployment is also substantially lower based on those factors.”

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