Job outlook for 2014 college grads puzzling

(USA Today) Dear Class of 2014: We regret to inform you that the nation's job market continues to force college graduates to take jobs they're overqualified for, jobs outside their major, and generally delay their career to the detriment of at least a decade's worth of unearned wages. Good luck on your continued job search.

A job rejection letter to this year's graduates, who are now supposed to be starting their first truly independent adult years, might as well go something like that.

The latest jobs report for April gave grads a puzzling picture. Employers added the most jobs in more than two years, 288,000. Unemployment dropped from 6.7% to 6.3%, the first time it was that low since September 2008. Young adults still face higher unemployment, but the rate for 25-29 year-olds fell from 7.5% in March to 6.9%. The unemployment rate for those 20-24 dropped from 12.2% to 10.6%.

Still, the portion of Americans 25-34 who were working in April fell to a five-month low of 75.5%, down from 75.9% in March.

"The entire drop (in unemployment) was due to people dropping out of the labor force, in particular young people," says Heidi Shierholz, a labor market economist who writes an annual report on the state of employment for young adults for Economic Policy Institute.

And despite the number of jobs added last month, Shierholz calls the gradual improvement "agonizingly slow."

Seniors who graduate over the next several weeks are poised to be yet another product of a depressing economic cycle that isn't their fault, but that they may never fully recover from. They and other recent graduating classes entered college and subsequently the labor market amidst a panoply of converging circumstances that will inevitably set them back: rising tuition, their parents' decreasing ability to pay that tuition, fewer jobs after graduation, and lower wages for the jobs that are available.

In Shierholz's paper on this year's graduates, released early this month, she and her colleagues write that "the Class of 2014 will be the sixth consecutive graduating class to enter the labor market during a period of profound weakness."

High unemployment for young adults during and after recessions is not a new phenomenon. Bureau of Labor Statistics data compiled by EPI show that the unemployment rate for those under 25 is typically at least twice the national average, because they are so new to the job market, lack experience, and may be the first let go when a company has to downsize in hard economic times. Still, previous generations didn't experience the fallout as harshly or for nearly as long as the current one, Shierholz says.

"It's never been this bad," she says. "How long we've had elevated unemployment is unprecedented."

That hasn't dampened students' spirits at least. A majority, or 84%, of this year's graduating class expects to find a job in their chosen field, according to an employment survey released this month by consulting firm Accenture.

That seems to align with attitudes on campuses. Lisa Severy, director of career services at University of Colorado Boulder, says this year's class is less anxious than past year's graduates about their job prospects, and has been more eager to attend career events.

"They seem more excited, hopeful, and enthusiastic," she says.

Their optimism may only be slightly warranted. A survey on recruitment trends by the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University finds hiring for bachelor's degrees this year is up 7%. That's relatively in line with increases in previous years though. The research institute calls the 3% overall growth in the college labor market "modest."

And many employers continue to seek students whose skills tend to be in high demand no matter what: business, engineering, and accounting majors.

Madison Piercy, a senior double majoring in electrical engineering and computer science at Boulder, had her fair share of suitors this year. The 21 year-oldwas pursued by Intel, Microsoft, and Noble Energy before accepting a positionat MIT Lincoln Laboratory, a federally funded research center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But most grads aren't in Piercy's position.

In the two years since Rebecca Mersiowsky graduated from Radford University in Radford, Va., she's worked at a beach club on Martha's Vineyard, as a substitute teacher in Fredericksburg, Va., and as a sales associate at a boutique in Boston, where she lives now.

The 24 year-old, who graduated with a degree in communications, has had no luck finding a job in public relations.

In the meantime, she convinced her employer at the boutique in Beacon Hill to let her take on the shop's blog and social media. She works up to 35 hours a week as a sales associate and blogger, but the shop can't afford to hire her full-time.

"I don't think frustrated even begins to describe it," Mersiowsky says of her plight. "It's really scary when I think about my graduating class and how now, two more of those classes have come out and have entered the workforce and that puts me behind them. I feel like I am being set back with every passing day."

As so many students approach graduation without a job, moving back home has become a given, as opposed to a last resort. Taylor Maycan, a former USA TODAY intern, graduated early from Northwestern University in March and moved home to Houston to live with her parents while she looks for a job. Until then, she babysits and does other odd jobs to make money.

"It's stressful. No one wants to graduate and not have a job lined up," she says. "You want to be able to say, I graduated and here's what I'm doing next. It's kind of tough to say, I graduated from this great school and I have no idea what I'm doing now."

Hers is a reality many college students have come to accept as the logical next step after graduation. Evan Feinberg, president of youth advocacy organization Generation Opportunity, says it's "probably the most difficult compromise my generation has been forced to make. It's really hard to get started on your own."

Maycan still has a hopeful attitude about finding employment and has accepted she may have to adjust her expectations about her first job.

Still, the consequences of a late career start could be life-long. Studies show that entering the labor market during a recession can affect your earnings for the next 10-15 years, depending on the industry you work in and how long you are unemployed or underemployed. And Shierholz says even that time estimate may be optimistic, given most studies on so-called "wage scarring" are on graduates who entered the labor market during the early 1980s recession, which was "long and severe" but "nothing like the one we're in," she says.

Severy sees evidence that the market may be improving, at least in some areas. The career center at Boulder has received so many job postings from employers this year, sometimes between 100 and 150 a day, that Severy hired one of this year's graduates to manage the postings full time.

As a whole though, graduates continue to struggle.

"Unfortunately for young Americans," Feinberg says, "the recession never ended."


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