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Recent college graduates feeling the pinch of underemployment

Published: Saturday, April 26 2014 8:20 p.m. MDT

Preston Rutter talks with Ryan Gilkey, from Clearwater, at a job fair in the Wilkinson Center Ballroom at Brigham Young University in Provo on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Brandi Hillock of Murray graduated from Southern Utah University in May 2013 with a degree in exercise science. She couldn't find a job related to her field of study and now a year later, doesn't feel like her degree gave her an advantage.

"It’s frustrating because I have colleagues that didn’t go to school at all, and then here I am making the same wage that they do, and I spent four years and all my money to get this degree, and I’m not seeing anything from my efforts," said Hillock, who is working for a mortgage company before she heads to graduate school.

It's the same story for her peers with degrees in other disciplines, and for spring college graduates transitioning into the labor market: The prospect of unemployment or underemployment is a reality for many.

During the past two decades, the unemployment rate for recent graduates peaked at about 7 percent in 2010, when the rate for all college graduates rose to about 5 percent, according to 2014 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York

"It is not clear whether these trends represent a structural change in the labor market, or if they are a consequence of the two recessions and jobless recoveries in the first decade of the 2000s," the report states.

It applies less to the fields of science, technology and engineering, as people in those professions are more likely to find good jobs, according to Sean Weinle of Sandy.

Weinle graduated in December but had a job related to information systems even before that. Now he's working as a software consultant for an accounting firm.

"Definitely people in my field are having success, but I know others have struggled finding jobs in other fields," Weinle said. "Everybody really needs IT and computer professionals nowadays in every business, so there's a lot of jobs for that."

It's always been the case that engineers and accountants seem to have an easier way into careers, agreed Scott Greenhalgh, manager of Alumni Career Services for Brigham Young University. He said only about 17 percent of people take a job related to what they studied in school.

That said, he still thinks students should study what they're passionate about and not major in something they don't like, just for the money. However, college students should also find a career focus and take courses that will prepare them to succeed. Greenhalgh pointed out that many CEOs studied humanities or the social sciences.

"People are worried about the marketability of their degree instead of the marketability of themselves. Decide what you want to do and market yourself," he said.

Greenalgh, who has held the post at BYU for 27 years, said the problem with finding a job is that everything is online now.

"It makes it easier to apply, but then it seems to make it easier for companies to ignore people as well," he said. "Students aren't doing enough to follow through. … Now networking is even more important."

Colleges and universities have career counselors for current students and for alumni. Resources, workshops, resume help and hiring events are also available through LDS Employment Resource Services and the Utah Department of Workforce Services, which has an employment center in almost every county.

Graduates are entering an economy that's still fragile and hasn't recovered to prerecession levels. An increase in low-paying and part-time jobs is typical of a recession, according to Carrie Mayne, chief economist for the Department of Workforce Services.

Also, about 70 percent of 2012 graduates finished school with student loan debt, and the average amount owed was $29,400. More people are earning bachelor’s degrees, so there’s more competition for those jobs as well, Mayne noted.

About 260,000 people held a bachelor's degree and worked a federal minimum wage job in 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number is down from 2010 but still more than double the number in 2005.

Unemployment rates in Utah as of December 2013 show that education attainment makes a difference. According to Mayne, the rate for adults with less than a high school diploma is 4.6 percent, 4.5 percent for those with a diploma but no college, 3.3 percent for those with some college or an associate degree and 2.4 percent for those with at least a bachelor’s degree.

However, Mayne pointed out that the statistics don’t reveal underemployment — whether jobs are on par with workers' degrees or skill level.

According to a 2012 survey by The Chronicle and American Public Media's Marketplace, 39 percent of employees value a bachelor's degree the same as five years ago. And 25 percent said they value it more, and 8 percent value it a lot more.

Employers also reported they struggle to find recent college graduates who are qualified for the job because they lack communication skills, can't adapt well and don't know how to think and solve complex problems.

While a degree is often required for a resume to even have a chance for consideration, the study said, simply having a four-year degree isn't enough, and there's a widening gap between what employers want and what colleges produce.

The study said, however, that "the relatively high unemployment experienced by recent college graduates should not prompt us to dismiss the value of a college education in helping young workers find jobs."

Sharon Hutchinson of Lehi graduated from BYU in 2012 and still hasn't been able to secure a full-time teaching job to utilize her degree in social studies teaching.

"Being a recent graduate, having little experience compared to other applicants who had more experience, I wasn’t even given interviews," Hutchinson said.

She’s worked as a substitute teacher and a teacher's aide, and now she is a teacher's assistant at an alternative high school — a position that doesn't require a degree. While she enjoys her work, Hutchinson still checks for new openings a couple of times a week and has considered jobs unrelated to her field.

"Obviously you don't get a teaching degree hoping you'll be a teacher's assistant forever, so I'm looking still," she said.

Email: madbrown@deseretnews.com

Twitter: Madeleine6

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