Young Americans Bear Brunt of Slow Economy

Apr 23, 2012

One in two young college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed according to an Associated Press analysis:

Young adults with bachelor's degrees are increasingly scraping by in lower-wage jobs — waiter or waitress, bartender, retail clerk or receptionist, for example — and that's confounding their hopes a degree would pay off despite higher tuition and mounting student loans.

Pew Research Center found the current economy has caused nearly one-third of young people to postpone marriage or parenthood.

There are micro and macro parts to this problem. First, the micro. Many students choose majors which have little demand. From the AP story:

College graduates who majored in zoology, anthropology, philosophy, art history and humanities were among the least likely to find jobs appropriate to their education level; those with nursing, teaching, accounting or computer science degrees were among the most likely.

A Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce study supports the AP’s findings. Recent philosophy, ethnic studies, fine arts, film, history, and anthropology graduates all face double-digit unemployment rates, while nursing , elementary education, mathematics, computer science, accounting, and finance graduates face unemployment rates below the national average. Choosing the right major matters.

Another microeconomic facet is that college degrees do not have the same reputation as they used to. The U.S. Chamber’s Domenic Giandomenico wrote in March:

For a college degree or a certificate to hold any value in the eyes of employers, it has to be more than just a glorified passport. It can’t be something obtained by simply checking the right boxes, paying the proper fees, and waiting the appropriate amount of time for it to arrive in the mail. Degrees and certificates are supposed to be proxies for competency. Holding one is supposed to tell employers, “Yes, this potential employee has learned something and has achieved something that indicates to me that they are worth hiring.”

Unfortunately, that sentiment is rapidly disappearing from those making hiring decisions. According to a Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools December 2011 survey of more than 1,000 employers, only 7% of employers believe that our current postsecondary education system does an “excellent” job of preparing its students for their careers, while 39% say the system does a “fair” or “poor” job.

We have to think beyond the four-year college model. The Atlantic's Jordan Weissmann writes, "in many instances, associates and technical degrees may be more financially valuable than a liberal arts degree."

The macroeconomic part is that the economy isn’t growing fast enough. There’s a host of reasons for that: the lack of a good energy policy; regulatory uncertainty; fear of higher taxes from expiring tax cuts and ballooning budget deficits.

If policymakers combine educational reforms that give young people an incentive to learn skills in college that better match what employers seek with pro-growth policies like those in the U.S. Chamber’s American Jobs and Growth Agenda then there will be more jobs, more skilled people to fill those jobs, more hope for the next generation.

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