Leah Thomas
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Today's college graduates are facing a new conundrum: More people than ever are earning degrees, but many of them aren't using their (very expensive) educations. 

Instead of applying for jobs that require a college education, many graduates are taking jobs that don’t right out of school, like bartending, driving for a ride-share app, or working at a coffee shop.

Burning Glass Technologies, a job market analytics firm, and nonprofit Strada Institute for the Future of Work set out to answer just how harmful this decision is for new graduates.

In order to understand how underemployment is affecting the most recent generation, they studied 4 million college graduates in the United States. They found that four in 10 new grads are currently underemployed. 

Overall, graduates who initially find themselves underemployed are five times more likely to be underemployed in the future, compared to those who take a job requiring their degree right out of college. And of those underemployed grads, two-thirds will be working the exact same job in five years. 

Underemployment hits especially hard for women. More women than men start their post-grad lives underemployed (47 percent compared to 37 percent, respectively) and women are more likely than men to stay underemployed in the future.

“This gender gap persists over time and holds true across every [college] major except engineering,” the researchers wrote.

Even in STEM fields like mathematics and engineering, which are traditionally perceived as "reliable" majors with lots of job availability, women are more likely to leave college and enter a job where they are underemployed.

Why? According to the CEO of Burning Glass, Matt Sigelman, there are two possible reasons.

First, female STEM students may not have the same mentor influence and opportunities as male STEM students. 

“Avoiding underemployment after college takes a conscious strategy,” he said. A strategy that female students may not even be aware is necessary. 

“Men may have stronger professional networks right out of school than women do,” he continued.

And, according to Sigelman, men are more likely to apply for jobs that may be above them, requiring higher skill level or more experience than they actually have. 

“A man who has a few of the requirements, but not all, is likely to apply anyway, with the idea that he can learn on the job,” he said. But women “more often think they’re underqualified if they don’t meet all the criteria. So they don’t apply.”

Regardless of gender, underemployment is expensive. College graduates aged 22 to 27 working at a job that did not require their college degree earn $10,000 less each year than graduates who took jobs that require a degree. 

According to Sigelmanm, the rise in underemployment could be linked to a “big shift among students in recent years away from the humanities into majors that sound more practical, but really aren’t.” As well as “you’ll figure it out later” attitudes many colleges adopt when it comes to curriculum – universities aren’t teaching the skills most employers are searching for in their job applications.

“Most students don’t start to focus on what employers want until they’re well into their senior year, which is way too late.”