The rapidly changing world of work presents a flurry of unanswered questions for us all. Take underemployment, which refers to people working in jobs for which they are overqualified. This topic has garnered attention over the years, with researchers illuminating how one in three Americans is underemployed. The prevalence of underemployment raises the question of who is being affected and for how long. Perhaps most importantly, how might we better prepare all students to launch into careers with long-term success?
“These findings contradict the popular narrative that underemployment and drift are built into the early phases of career discovery–like some sort of rite of passage for graduates,” said Weise. “We as educators, parents, and students can’t just assume a trajectory of success from the moment of graduation. The future of work is evolving. A key takeaway here is intentionality. Underemployment isn’t inevitable, but avoiding it and achieving positive outcomes will require more deliberate planning by both colleges and students.”
It’s a well-known stereotype. Your barista has a bachelor’s degree. The rental-car clerk graduated with honors. That guy tending bar successfully defended his thesis. Holding a menial or low-skilled first job right out of college, one that makes little use of a bachelor’s degree, seems practically a rite of passage for recent graduates. For many, this job is little more than a placeholder paycheck that—supplemented, perhaps,by Mom and Dad—covers the bills for a year or two before young adults figure out a direction and settle into a long-term career.
Stories of underemployed college graduates are nothing new. Many parents and their children regard lackluster jobs right after graduation as a detour that will be corrected in a few months—or in the worst case—in a few years. But the long-running narrative is more prominent now in an evolving economy, where entire occupations are expanding and contracting at an alarming speed and rising college tuition prices have resulted in record levels of student debt among recent graduates.
New evidence uncovered in our study on underemployment, however, suggests that young adults,parents, and college officials shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the job choices new graduates make out of college. Many academics often say they prepare students for their fifth job, not their first. Well, the first job matters more than we previously suspected for getting that fifth job. We found that early-career underemployment is not a mere diversion but rather a potential derailment with lingering instability that can lead to problems down the road. The choice of a first job can reverberate years into the future. This is especially true for women, as well as those in fields outside most STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.
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We’re getting mixed messages about the outcomes of liberal arts graduates. Depending on who you ask, these graduates are either headed for a lifetime as a barista or are capable of doing absolutely anything. The answer lies somewhere in the middle.
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