Before Starting College, Understand Underemployment And How To Avoid It

This article originally appeared in Forbes Coaches Council

Unfortunately, as illustrated by the following statistics, far too many college graduates are not getting what they expect from a college degree:

• According to Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report (registration required), only 31% of college graduates are engaged (i.e., enthusiastic and highly involved) in their jobs. The remainder are likely not passionate, or they simply “have a job,” and some may be downright unhappy.

• According to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY), as of June, nearly 40% of recent grads cannot get a job that even requires a degree.

You read that right: After often spending six years in college to get a “four-year degree” — and likely taking on considerable debt — a disturbing almost two out of five graduates have to settle for a job they could have gotten with nothing more than a high school diploma.

This situation is called “underemployment.”

As a former executive officer and CEO of three national consulting companies, I have understood for decades that unengaged and/or underemployed employees create a strong negative drain on employee enthusiasm, motivation, and productivity. For the past six years since retirement, I have researched why lack of engagement and underemployment occur and have developed a program to assist college-bound students and career-transitioning adults. Drawing on that experience, here's my advice on how to understand and avoid underemployment.

Choosing The Wrong Major

From what I've seen, a major cause of underemployment is students’ inability to select their best college major because they do not know what career path they could be good at and passionate about.

As a result, many students choose popular majors that have far more graduates than there are jobs available. Like me, you may be surprised to learn that more than a third (36%) of the 73 common majors tracked by the FRBNY have underemployment rates of 50% or higher. Sadly, that means that half or more of all graduates in those majors will wind up with careers not requiring a college degree.

The worst underemployment rates are found among students who majored in criminal justice (73%) and performing arts (63%). Other majors with underemployment rates greater than 50% include relatively soft majors, such as ethnic studies, history, general business, and liberal arts.

Majors that have underemployment rates of 30% to just under 50% make up 37% of those 73 common majors tracked by the FRBNY. These include majors like a foreign language, health services, journalism, economics, geography, and physics.

Importantly, no one major leads to 100% of graduates finding work that actually requires a degree. The lowest underemployment rates vary from about 11% to 30%, with most falling in the 20% to 30% range.

The three majors with the lowest underemployment rates are special education, nursing, and elementary education. Other types of majors with less than 30% underemployment are in the fields of education, engineering, computer science, accounting, and pharmacy.

I think that anyone preparing for college should examine FRBNY’s latest underemployment data.

How To Avoid Underemployment

Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to avoid underemployment:

• Determine your best career before starting college. A great starting point is to identify careers that satisfy these four critical characteristics:

1. You’ll love it.

2. You’ll be good at it.

3. There is a high — and increasing — demand for people in this career.

4. Someone is willing to pay you to do it (i.e., there are jobs related to that major).

• Determine the best college major that will launch you into that career. In a previous article, I discuss how to determine your best career and select the right related major.

• Avoid majors in the greater than 50% underemployment category unless you feel confident that you will be at least in the top third of your graduating class.

• Get two or three good internships while you’re still in college so you can gain valuable on-the-job experience and begin building your career-related network. It generally is very difficult to be hired upon graduation without that experience.

The Alternative

If you are not able to follow these types of steps — or if you do not feel confident that you can graduate near the top of your class in majors with high underemployment levels — then I have a rather controversial suggestion: You could be better off choosing a career that you’ll love and be great at, but that does not require a college degree.

By skipping college, you can save yourself four to six years that you would have spent in school. You can use that time productively to develop skills and experience that will place you near the top of your field while getting paid instead of racking up student loan debt.

There are quite a few high-paying jobs that do not require a degree. U.S. News Best Jobs Rankings is a good reference for exploring the best, and best-paying, jobs. And if you can work your way into a management position during those six years, the pay could be higher than most starting positions with a degree.

Underemployment Is Avoidable

I believe that negative career results can be avoided by taking one of these two routes. And both can lead to great outcomes. The key lies in choosing a career that you will love and be great at and that will be in demand. Then, you have the potential to create a life filled with happiness and success.