What’s the Big Deal About Underemployed College Grads?

Did you know that 43% of recent four-year college degree graduates are underemployed?  That means that, based on the actual hiring requirements of current job postings, recent bachelor’s degree graduates got a first job that doesn’t actually require a BA or BS degree.  That doesn’t sound too bad for a first job. However, the striking fact is for those who start out underemployed 29 percent are still underemployed after five years and 21 percent after 10 years.

This data is all a part of a fascinating analysis conducted by Burning Glass Technologies for Strada Education, explained in the report “The Permanent Detour, Underemployment’s Long-Term Effectives on the Careers of College Grads.”


Why are so many college grads underemployed?  Majors matter.  In some majors, after working for 10 years, almost half of those individuals don’t end up in jobs that actually require a bachelor’s degree.  Take a look at the whole list on page 20 of the report. The worst seems to be Parks & Recreation, Homeland Security, Firefighting, and Law Enforcement.

Now, is it the major itself that is the problem or that the students enrolled in these majors don’t have the career navigation skills to actually land a BA-level job after college?  Remember, the report isn’t looking at getting a job in your actual field of study, just getting a job that requires a BA degree.  I suspect both are the problem. The major may be fun and interesting, but not clearly aligned with actual employment demand.  Many graduates don’t have well developed career navigation skills (career networking, job search, interviewing) upon earning their degrees.


I was one of those underemployed BA graduates. I can say without a doubt that I had no real clue about the world of professional work or the process of how to build a professional network and develop a personal career path.  Even with some good family contacts, I had to learn my career navigation skills through the self-help book, What Color is Your Parachute?.

What to do?

The Strada/Burning Glass report recommends that colleges really improve their game when it comes to career services.  I strongly agree, but putting this all into the hands of a Career Services office probably isn’t really going to help most students.  I am really concerned about the hordes of college freshman who are drifting into college without a real game plan; they aren’t likely to take advantage of all the resources the college has to offer.  Instead of being voluntary career services should be mandatory for all college freshman, unless they can clearly demonstrate they got a full panoply of career development at the high school level.  I’m leaning toward the recommendation of my friend, Bill Symonds of the Global Pathways Institute. We should make Careers 101 an entry level course for all incoming college freshman just as the fundamental class, English 101.  In terms of real-life success, I would argue that Career Navigation skills are as equally important to communication skills.

Still, college career services alone are too little, too late.  We need to push the career development and career awareness much further down, so that it is an integral part of the K-12 experience.  Our goal should be for high school students to stop making a simplistic and false binary decision – “I’m either going to college or going to get a job.”  Their choice of postsecondary education and a particular program needs to be informed by an understanding of career opportunities and personal fit.  In our career services at both the high school and college levels, particularly in the arts and humanities programs, we need to create more clearly marked dotted lines between majors and real-world career options that students can pursue.

Hans Meeder is President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions (www.nc3t.com). NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.

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