Choosing Majors and Avoiding Underemployment: The Secret is Skills

Students need to choose their college major carefully. If not, it could have lasting effects. The good news is that students can enhance their chances in the job market by adding additional skills to their major—even in majors that carry a high risk of underemployment. 

Underemployment, defined as when a bachelor’s degree graduate ends up in a job that doesn’t require a college degree, affects more than four in 10 recent graduates. Even more troubling is that this is not a phase: graduates who are underemployed in their first job are likely to still be underemployed five and 10 years later. A slow start in the job market can dog workers throughout their careers. 

In our latest research on underemployment for college graduates, Majors that Matter: Ensuring College Graduates Avoid Underemployment, Burning Glass Technologies found that some popular majors have underemployment rates well above the average.  

On average, 43% of college graduates are underemployed in their first job. But broken down by major, underemployment rates vary by 50 percentage points, from 29% in engineering to 80% in personal and culinary services. 

And while STEM majors generally perform better and liberal arts majors worse, that’s not always true. Biology majors, for example, have a 51% underemployment rate. Popular majors such as business, legal studies, and public administration, have some of the highest underemployment rates.  

This is troubling because these non-licensed occupational majors account for four in 10 bachelor’s degrees awarded in the United States. Federal statistics show that since 1970, the enrollment of students in these majors has increased 80%, compared to an 11% increase for STEM majors and a one-third decline in liberal arts majors. 

So how do students selecting programs—and the educators who create them—ensure they are well prepared for the job market? The report offers three strategies: 

Evaluate the Underemployment Risk when Choosing a Major 

The Majors that Matter report includes an Underemployment Risk Indicator showing the probability that graduates of specific programs of study will be underemployed. This doesn’t mean a student has to avoid a subject they really want to study just because it has a high risk of underemployment, but it does mean students should take steps to minimize their risks. 

Avoid Underemployment by Building the Skills to Succeed 

The acquisition of specific workplace skills can add up to 20% to a college graduate’s earnings, regardless of major. For example, psychology majors in college-level jobs are twice as likely to have budgeting skills, and 20% more likely to have research skills. 

Accrue Meaningful and Relevant Work Experiences Before Graduation 

Internships and other work experience programs can provide students with an opportunity to build skills. For example, college graduates who become athletic trainers can both reduce their risk of underemployment and earn a salary premium if they have experience in rehabilitative services. 

Find out more about Majors that Matter, funded by the Strada Institute for the Future of Work, on our underemployment page.

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