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Labor market trends for new college graduates.

If you want to get an idea of the kinds of occupations that college students might enter after graduation, ask them "What's your major?" Although graduates with a particular major are not restricted to a single occupation, their field of study is a key element in determining the entry level jobs they obtain, according to a series of surveys of new college graduates conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics of the U. S. Department of Education.

The Center has conducted surveys of college graduates in the occupations year after graduation for the classes of 1977, 1980, 1984, and 1986. The Bureau of Labor Statistics analyzed data from each survey and published results for the three earlier surveys for all graduates as a group and for each of 20 selected major fields of study. Articles with these results appeared in the summer issues of the Occupational Outlook Quarterly in 1982, 1984, and 1988. Data from the latest survey were analyzed in "The Class of '86: One Year After Graduation" in the summer 1990 OOQ. This article discusses the trends reflected in the series of surveys.

A Stable Market

Labor force entry and occupational entry patterns for most fields were relatively stable over time, judging by the four surveys. One year after graduation, about 70 percent of the graduates were employed full time, another 12 percent were employed part time, and 3 to 5 percent were unemployed. The rest were not in the labor force.

The following tabulation summarizes the labor force and graduate school status of graduates in the four surveyed years. All numbers are percents.
 1977 1980 1984 1986 Average
In labor force 86 86 86 89 87
 Employed full time 69 70 71 73 71
 Employed part time 12 12 12 12 12
 Unemployed 5 4 3 4 4
Not in labor force 14 14 14 11 13
In graduate school 25 26 23 24 24

The participation of graduates in the labor force varied widely from major (see table 1). Graduates whose majors were closely linked to specific occupations, such as computer and information sciences, nursing, education, engineering, and accounting, had a higher than average labor force participation rate. Graduates in arts and sciences--which includes biological sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities--had a lower than average labor force participation rate. [Tabular Data Omitted]

The difference between the two groups is largely explained by the different proportions attending graduate school full time (see table 2). While an average of 24 percent of all graduates were enrolled in graduate or professional schools, such as law or medicine, enrollment varied widely by major. Relatively few graduates in occupation-related majors went to graduate school full time. On the other hand, many arts and sciences graduates had taken preprofessional programs--such as prelaw or premedicine--or planned to enter occupations for which master's or doctoral degrees are usually required. A large proportion, therefore, were enrolled full time in graduate school. Some of the difference in the proportion attending graduate school is also due to the high salaries offered graduates who majored in engineering, accounting, nursing, and computer sciences. These salaries are an incentive to put off graduate studies or to attend graduate school only part time while working full time. [Tabular Data Omitted]

On average, in the surveyed years, 8 percent of all graduates worked part time because they preferred to do so; 4 percent were unable to find full-time jobs (see table 3). [Tabular Data Omitted]

An average of 13 percent were not in the labor force. The most common reason for not being in the labor force was attending school, which was the choice of 9 percent of the graduates (see table 4). One percent had family responsibilities and 3 percent had other reasons for not being in the labor force. [Tabular Data Omitted]

Occupations of Employed Graduates

Most of the employed graduates worked in occupations that generally require a degree for entry (see table 5). Forty-one percent were in professional specialty occupations; 20 percent, in managerial occupations; 8 percent, in technical occupations; and 6 percent, in nonretail sales occupations. Graduates in accounting chemistry, computer and information science, education, engineering, mathematics, nursing, and physical education were more likely than other graduates to be in occupations that require a degree. Similarly, as table 6 shows, the proportion of employed graduates holding jobs in an occupation related to their field of study was higher for graduates of occupation-related majors such as computer and information sciences, engineering, and nursing. It was lower for many science and liberal arts fields; in many of these fields, an advanced degree is required for entry. [Tabular Data Omitted]

Elementary and secondary school teaching was the most common occupation that requires a degree, employing 13 percent of graduates. Employment in other occupations was as follows: Accountant, 7 percent; engineer, 7 percent; registered nurse, 4 percent; computer specialist, 4 percent; social worker, 2 percent; other managerial, 13 percent; other professional, 13 percent, technical, 5 percent; nonretail sales, 7 percent.

Smaller numbers of graduates were employed in each of the following occupations: Marketing, advertising, and public relations manager; management analyst; personnel, training, and labor relations specialist; buyer; chemist; pharmacist; postsecondary teacher; editor and reporter; health technologist and technician; science technician; securities and financial services sales worker; advertising sales worker; farmer; and Armed Forces occupations. Many other occupations were mentioned; these are listed in the sections on specific majors in the four articles on the particular surveys.

An average of 25 percent of the employed graduates held jobs in occupations that do not generally require a degree. Administrative support occupations had the largest proportion of these employed graduates (13 percent), followed by service (5 percent), craft, operative, or laborer (4 percent), and retail sales occupations (3 percent). Many graduates may have been able to obtain a job requiring a college degree but did not in order to go to graduate school or for some other reason. Others preferred the job they had to ones that required a degree. And for some of these jobs, especially in administrative support occupations such as adjuster and investigator or clerical supervisor, a degree was required. Still, some of these graduates were probably underemployed; they preferred a better job but could not obtain one.

Major Fields

The stability of labor force experience for all the graduates as a group was also evident when the data were analyzed by major field. Some fields, however, were less stable, notably education, agriculture and natural resources, chemistry, engineering, and mathematics.

In education, the proportion of graduates becoming teachers decreased from 73 percent for the class of 1977 to 68 percent for the class of 1984. The proportion then increased to 75 percent for the class of 1986. In the late 1970's and early 1980's, opportunities for new graduates in education were poor. The number of degrees granted in education decreased. When demand for teachers increased, there was a large pool of qualified teachers who were not in the labor force or were in other occupations. They competed with new graduates for jobs. However, demand continued to increase through 1987. By that time, many people once in the reserve pool may already have obtained teaching jobs or established themselves in other careers. Therefore the class of 1986 had an easier time getting teaching jobs than the class of 1984. This pattern can also be seen in other fields, such as English and physical education, in which many graduates become teachers.

In agriculture and natural resources, both the labor force participation rate and the proportion of students entering degree-related occupations decreased from 1978 through 1987. During the same period, their graduate school enrollment increased, indicating that graduate study may be increasingly required to obtain an agriculture or natural resource-related job.

The proportion of chemistry graduates becoming chemists dropped sharply from 31 percent in 1981 to 19 percent in 1985 and then rebounded to 35 percent in 1987. The chemical industry was restructuring in the mid-1980's, resulting in poor opportunities for both chemists and chemical engineers. By 1987, it had recovered.

The proportion of engineering students becoming engineers increased from 68 percent in 1978 to 77 percent in 1981, decreased to 67 percent in 1985, and returned to 77 percent in 1987. Demand for engineers was beginning to improve in 1987 and was booming by 1981. Low demand for chemical engineers because of the restructuring of the chemical industry may account for part of the decline in 1985. Also, the proportion of engineering graduates entering management-related jobs increased that year, perhaps reflecting the excellent opportunities in management for engineering graduates at that time.

The proportion of mathematics graduates becoming computer specialists decreased from an average of 31 percent in 1978 through 1985 to 16 percent in 1987. The pool of computer science graduates had steadily increased over those years, while the number of mathematics graduates decreased. Also, with much higher demand for mathematics teachers, the percent of graduates entering teaching increased dramatically.

Usefulness of College Degree and Major

The graduates' own assessment of whether a college degree was required differed from that presented in the section, "Occupations of Employed Graduates." Only 59 percent of the class of 1984 and 60 percent of the class of 1986 said a degree was required for their job although 75 percent were in occupations that usually required one. (Data are not available for the other classes.) Even in engineering, teaching, and other occupations in which a degree is almost universally required by employers, some said a degree was not required.

Several factors may explain the discrepancy between graduates' assessment of the need for a degree and the requirements usually indicated by employers. Graduates were asked, "Did your job require a college degree?" Some probably did not feel their work used particular skills or information learned in college even if those skills or that information served as a base on which the graduates built. It is also likely that some graduates were expressing dissatisfaction with the duties assigned to them in occupations where most employers think a college degree is required. In addition, some positions in technical, managerial, and nonretail sales occupations do not require a bachelor's degree, but all positions in an occupation were treated identically for the analysis in "Occupations of Employed Graduates." For example, one can become a registered nurse with an associate's degree.

New graduates' assessments of whether their jobs require a degree varied by major (see table 7). In general, those who had majored in fields that are linked to specific occupations, such as education and engineering, said their jobs required a degree. A lower proportion of graduates in arts and sciences generally said that their jobs required a degree.
Table 7. Percent of employed bachelor's degree recipients
holding jobs that they thought required a college
degree 1 year after graduation
Major field of study 1984 1986
All graduates 59 60
Accounting 76 77
Agriculture and natural resources 46 46
Art 40 35
Biological sciences 52 49
Business and management, except accounting 51 51
Chemistry 75 72
Communications 47 48
Computer and information sciences 74 71
Economics 65 56
Education, except physical education 75 78
Engineering 84 86
English 46 49
History 48 40
Home economics 57 41
Mathematics 73 70
Nursing 55 60
Physical Education 63 65
Political science 48 51
Psychology 48 43
Sociology 42 44

As said above, the rate at which graduates entered occupations related to their major fields has been very stable. In contrast, the graduates' own assessments of whether their work was closely or somewhat related to their major fields declined from 90 percent in 1981 to 77 percent in 1987, as shown in table 8. (Data for 1977 were not available.) These assessments also varied by field. As would be expected, those with career-related majors were more likely to say that their work was closely related to their majors. Nursing was highest; 92 percent of the members of the class of 1986 said their work was closely related to their major. In some fields, especially in liberal arts and sciences, only about a third said their work was closely related to their major. [Tabular Data Omitted]

Graduates of the classes of 1984 and 1986 were also asked whether they though their job had career potential. The responses were analyzed both by major occupational group (table 9) and major field of study (table 10). [Tabular Data Omitted]

Forty-five percent of the class of 1986 thought their job had definite career potential and another 24-percent thought their job had possible career potential. Surprisingly, those in professional specialty and managerial occupations had only slightly higher than average assessments of the career potential of their jobs. And many in jobs not thought of as requiring a college degree nevertheless thought their job had career potential. For example, 48 percent of those in administrative support occupations thought their jobs had definite or possible career potential.

Analysis of the responses by major field revealed no surprises. Higher than average proportions of those in occupation-specific majors--such as accounting, engineering, and nursing--thought their jobs had definite or possible career potential. Many fields in which respondents reported lower than average career potential are also fields with high proportions in graduate school; graduate students often take jobs with little career potential because they expect these jobs to be temporary.

Limitations of the Data

The information above should be helpful to individuals selecting a major field of study because it indicates the range of job possibilities for graduates with a degree in the fields discussed. However, the reader should be aware that the accuracy of the data is affected by the size of the samples, the time at which the surveys were taken, and the qualifications of job candidates other than their major.

The estimates are based on information obtained from samples which contain an average of about 11,000 graduates, about 1 percent. The results of a survey of all graduates could differ.

The information was collected only a short time after graduation and understates the number of graduates who eventually enter jobs that require a college degree or attend graduate school. People are likely to change occupations as they gain experience or additional education. Occupational mobility is particularly high for young workers. People not only transfer among occupations within a broad occupational group, such as professional specialty, but also tend to move from craft, operative, laborer, administrative support, and service jobs to professional specialty, technical, and managerial jobs. Liberal arts graduates, in particular, change occupations often in an attempt to find work that fits their abilities and expectations. Some studies indicate that liberal arts graduates are less likely than others to start out in jobs generally requiring a college degree but later enter such fields.

In cases in which few students with a given major entered an occupation, the data do not reveal whether those graduates did not seek jobs in those occupations or employers chose not to hire them. The meaning of the data is clearer in the opposite situation. A high proportion of graduates entering an occupation indicates that many graduates with that major found the occupation attractive, the sufficient openings existed, and that employers preferred those graduates to other applicants.

The major field of study is only one aspect of an individual's job qualifications. A minor field of study, other courses, extracurricular activities, work experience, grades, the quality of the school, the ability to express oneself, and personality traits such as motivation, self-confidence, and enthusiasm are all factors that employers take into consideration. Not everyone with a particular major is qualified for a job entered by some with that major. Conversely, some graduates enter occupations not mentioned in this article.

Testing an Underlying Assumption

The four surveys share one notable characteristic: All were conducted during times of good or at least improving employment conditions for new graduates. No survey was conducted during the severe 1981-82 recession. Nevertheless, during the 10-year span of these surveys, employment conditions faced by new graduates underwent many changes. The 1970's were a time of general oversupply of new college graduates, while conditions were much better in the 1980's, a period of sustained growth. Attitudes about the desirability of various careers and fields of study changed, as did the students' choice of major. Although the total number of college graduates increased only slightly, there was a marked shift in the fields the degrees were earned in, with a trend toward career-related fields such as management, computer science, and engineering and away from liberal arts, education, and letters (see table 11). [Tabular Data Omitted]

Given the many changes affecting the job market between the first and last latest survey, one would expect to see major differences in patterns of entry to the labor force. Even more variation would be expected in patterns of entry to occupations related to field of study. But in fact, there were almost no significant shifts in labor force entry rates, rates of entry to major-related occupations, or rates of entry to occupations related to field of study, except as discussed above.

This stability allows us to examine an implicit assumption of the articles on previous survey: If labor market conditions allow, graduates will enter occupations related to their major field. Testing this assumption is difficult because a simple 1-to-1 ratio of graduates and jobs in major-related occupations is not expected. The system contains considerable flexibility for both employers and students.

Employers need not restrict their choice of candidates to certain major except where the college education provides essential training (engineering or nursing, for example). Therefore, employers often fill a job with a graduate who majored in a field unrelated to the occupation. Employers find that they can train good candidates, teaching them their company's methods. Businesses often want people from diverse backgrounds for management and sales positions, increasing overall demand for graduates of several major fields in many occupational categories. This flexibility on the part of employers enables graduates to enter occupations unrelated to their degree. The stability of the rates of entry into occupations related to major field reflects this flexibility.

Choices by students are also at variance with the assumption, for students can be divided into three groups: Those who select a major without regard to an occupation; those who wish to enter occupations that require graduate or professional education; and those who do wish to enter particular occupations right after college.

Many students did not determine their career aspirations until late in their college studies. These students often majored in a field that gave them a range of career choices. There are at least two reasons why the labor market experience of graduates in these fields did not change much during the period of the four surveys: Graduates in these fields did not wish to enter occupations related to their major, no matter the labor market conditions; or, changes in the labor market were insufficient to affect the rates of entry into such occupations.

Other new graduates did not desire entrance into an occupation directly related to their field upon graduation. For example, some undergraduates majored in a field solely for the purpose of graduate study, as was the case for chemistry majors who intended to go to medical school. In other cases, jobs directly related to the major field require graduate study for entrance, as is the case for political science. Labor market conditions for recent college graduates would not be expected to have a major influence on the decision of these students to enter an occupation related to their major.

Students in the third group did major in fields that prepared them for particular occupations. This is the only group to which the assumption being examined fully applies. Does the apparent stability of entry rates into occupations directly related to these majors invalidate the assumption? The question cannot be answered only through an analysis of employment rates. Instead, the question should be rephrased: Is there evidence that information about employment affects choice of major? The answer is yes.

Table 11 shows that the percent of bachelor's degrees awarded in business, health sciences, engineering, computers, communications, and physical sciences increased over the period covered by the surveys. The percent of bachelor's degrees decreased in fields such as mathematics, letters, social sciences, and education. "Generally speaking, these data reveal a shift toward majors in which graduates were more successfully in the job marker." One can conclude, therefore, that major market information does influence students' choice, although the extent of the influence remains unknown. Thomas A. Amirault is an economist in the Division of Occupational Outlook, BLS.
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Author:Amirault, Thomas A.
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 1990
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