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One of the secrets of escaping underemployment is to be in an occupation where there are lots of college-level jobs—even if a graduate starts off in a non-college job.

In our latest report, The Permanent Detour, conducted by Burning Glass Technologies and Strada Institute for the Future of Work, we examined underemployment and its impact on college graduates. Four in 10 graduates end up in jobs that don’t require a degree, and if a worker is underemployed in their first job, they tend to stay that way. Nearly two-thirds of graduates who are underemployed in their first job are still underemployed five years later, with a significant cost in lost salary and opportunities.

Yet while the overall picture is clear, workers are more likely to escape underemployment in some occupations than others.

For example, underemployed graduates who get their first job in Computer and Mathematical occupations have a roughly 50-50 chance of moving into a college-level job. The “likelihood of escape” is nearly as high for fields like Life, Physical, and Social Sciences; Community and Social Service; and Architecture and Engineering.

By contrast, occupations like Building, Grounds Cleaning and Maintenance; Farming, Fishing, and Forestry; and Food Preparation have low likelihood of escape. In these fields, only about a quarter of underemployed graduates move into appropriate jobs within five years.

What’s the difference between these occupations? The more college-level jobs there are in an occupation, the more likely it is that graduates will be able to move up into appropriate work.

Help desk technicians and community health workers are both non-college jobs, and bachelor’s degree holders in those roles would be underemployed. But information technology and health care both offer many college-level jobs that these workers can move into over time. The non-college jobs can be the “foot in the door” for future advancement.

Graduates who start out as restaurant waitstaff don’t have the same long-term career outcomes. Restaurant jobs do offer room for advancement into “back of the house” management and chef roles. But there are far fewer college-level jobs in these fields, and therefore fewer opportunities to move up.

In addition, workers in fields with fewer college-level jobs don’t have the same opportunities to develop technical skills employers expect in jobs that require a bachelor’s degree, and may face bias by employers who don’t want to hire workers from lower-skill positions, even if they have the right qualifications.

The first job after college is a high-stakes decision, and graduates need to treat it as one—and so does higher education. Postsecondary institutions need to make the transition from school to work as smooth as possible, ensuring that graduates have the skills needed to get and succeed in a first job that offers real opportunities. Otherwise, students will spend up to a decade just trying to catch up with their peers.

Read our full report on the Permanent Detour today.

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