Is job market causing headaches for college students?
By DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org August 21, 2012 8:54AM
English major Nick Mitchel is worried that his passion for books and literature along with his degree might not land him a job. He is pictured at his home in Tinley Park, Illinois, Thursday, August 2, 2012. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 23, 2012 6:05AM
As is the case with a lot of college students, Nic Mitchel’s search for a major was an inward pursuit.
He focused on what interested him, what impassioned him and what title he wanted when he finally earned his degree.
All roads pointed in one direction: English studies. But now the Illinois State University senior is thinking outward, as in how he’ll be able to apply his hard-earned skills in a tough job market.
“At first, I just wanted to be a writer, and that was it. I wasn’t thinking about a job,” said Mitchel, of Orland Hills.
As graduation closes in, though, he’s pondering how his knowledge of metaphors, motifs and analogies applies in a world obsessed with business, technology and service.
“I do feel that the major is undervalued. It always leads to the question, ‘Are you going to teach?’ ” he said. “There are opportunities to the degree, but most of the ones that I have looked into seem to need grad school. And given the economy, that can be expensive.”
The promise of hope
Four years ago, President Barack Obama was ushered into office on a campaign built largely on hope. Much of the momentum for that drive came from the nation’s youth. But now, with the job market making mincemeat out of job seekers age 25 and under, one can’t help but ask if that hope is dashed.
According to a recent Rutgers University study of graduates who received bachelor’s degrees from 2006 to 2011, slightly more than half were working full time. The rest, 40 percent, were in graduate school, working part time or unemployed. Meanwhile, student loan debt in this country continues to pile up, reaching an estimated $1 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
The Economic Policy Institute says the job market for those 25 and under is grim. Unemployment among young college graduates averages 9.4 percent, with another 20 percent working in jobs for which they are overqualified.
In light of these bleak numbers, Forbes magazine recently outlined the best college majors based on job growth projections through 2020 from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. They were engineering, computer information systems, biochemistry, math and other technology fields.
All this is not lost on today’s college students, particularly those pursuing liberal arts degrees.
“The debt terrifies me,” Mitchel said. He’s considering teaching English in China or doing some work unrelated to his major for a short time, just to pay off student loans. But he said he still has hope because what is the alternative?
A perfect science?
Jessica Lickus, of Palos Park, is majoring in science because she believes the field will afford her more options should the job market get even worse.
“We all talk about it all the time,” she said. “We’re all trying to pick something to major in that we think will have a job opening.”
She just earned her associate’s degree at Moraine Valley Community College and soon will start classes at St. Xavier University.
Her parents told her to study whatever she wanted, but she sees how difficult life can be for those who choose to study history or writing or English. Her father is a writer and has written a book, but “he does it for fun,” she said. “He has another job that he makes a living at.”
Is she still optimistic about the future?
“Yeah, but you have to make it happen,” she said. “You have to want it.”
Walter Fronczek, dean of liberal arts at Moraine Valley, agrees that the simplified mantra of “Do what you love, the money will follow” has fallen by the wayside for many in these tough economic times. Students these days need to be more practical, he said.
Colleges do, too.
“Our goal is to get them that associate’s degree so they have the skills they need to continue on in any direction,” he said.
Fronczek said education is a foundation, not a ticket to a paycheck. Yet no one expects idealism to pay the student loan bill.
“Obviously, you need to consider the job market when making career decisions,” Fronczek said.
But, he added, many of the skills acquired through liberal studies — writing, critical thinking, broadening perspectives — are applicable in today’s work force.
Fronczek earned his undergraduate degree in psychology, a discipline that leads to a greater understanding of people. He since has earned a master’s and is working on his doctorate.
“If someone had told me 15 years ago that I’d one day be dean of liberal arts, I’d have laughed,” he said. “You don’t know where your career is going to take you.”
A solid liberal arts education prepares you for those twists and turns, he said. Most important, he said, students need to choose something for which they have a passion.
“Most jobs require you to work 40 or 50 hours a week these days,” he said. “If you’re miserable at your work, that’s a long lifetime.”
His advice: Find where your interests lie and research careers that can be attached to those studies.
Darlene Narco’s super-practical mom planted the seeds of a career in health care early on.
“My mom admits I’ve been brainwashed into going into nursing,” said the 18-year-old Andrew High School graduate, who is about to begin college at St. Xavier.
“I don’t know if I’m doing what will make me happy,” she said. “I’m doing what my mom thinks will get me a job.”
If finding a job with a bachelor’s degree is as challenging as it has been for her to find a job without one, her mom may be on to something.
“I can’t tell you how many applications I put in just for summer work,” Narco said.
She finally got hired at Dick’s Sporting Goods after a management shake-up led to a mass exodus of employees.
“I just happened to put my application in at the right time,” she said. “I was really lucky.”
Ash Dinho’s parents, who are doctors, influenced his decision to major in physical therapy.
“They kind of pressured me to choose health sciences, but I also realized that it’s a good field,” said the Naperville man, 21.
Kris Tupas, 18, of Tinley Park, said the field she’s interested in also happens to be a good one.
She is a pre-pharmacy student at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
“I think the health care fields are good,” she said. But even if that changes, Tupas said she’ll stick with her major.
“Ultimately, it’s not worth it if you’re not going to be happy,” she said.
Mike Kilinskis is very confident about his future. “I’m a finance major. I have a good number of connections. But I don’t think a lot of my friends are as confident,” the University of Illinois at Chicago junior said.
Kilinskis, of Palos Heights, knows a lot of college graduates, including some family members, who can’t find work.
“But from what I see, a lot of them aren’t looking too hard for a job, either,” he said. “A lot of people don’t want to move to find work. They want to be able to live at home and commute, mainly because they have so much debt.”
He said he has been able to avoid that pitfall so far by completing his university studies at Moraine Valley Community College. “I’m debtless at the moment. All my friends are drowning in debt,” he said. “It wasn’t easy to go to a community college when everyone else was going away, but I think it was the smart thing to do.”