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Evaluating job prospects by major after graduation

House advances student loan fix

DEKALB – As college students seek jobs after graduation, they find themselves learning the true value of their degrees and their education.

Coresair Mack is one such student. Mack, who graduated from Northern Illinois University in December with a degree in psychology, said he sought a job in his field, but hasn't succeeded because he needs at least a master's degree. Although he had ambitions to become a cognitive and developmental psychologist, he now hopes to become a school psychologist after doing substitute teaching.

Mack said going to college was worth it, but the chances of landing a job after college seem to depend on a student's major. He said friends who studied business administration, accounting, and computers seemed to find jobs easier than people who majored in fields like the arts.

"My other friend got a job working at Google a week after she graduated," Mack said. 

Landing a job after college is about more than picking the right major, said Brandon Lagana, director of marketing and information resource management for NIU Career Services. With the exception of certain fields that require special certifications, such as nursing and engineering, employers typically are looking for students with "soft skills," such as creative or critical thinking, initiative and ability to work with others, he said.  

Citing a 2012-2013 College Employment Research Institute report, Lagana said that of the top 24 majors most requested by employers, "all majors" was No.1. Accounting, marketing, finance and computer science were next on the list.

"Employers are still seeking candidates with the right skills and experience," Lagana said.

Lagana said NIU Career Services took a recent survey of what employers look for when making hiring decisions. He said only 23 percent of employers surveyed said they wanted graduates with a specific college major, while half said they wanted students with skills such as critical thinking and communication ability.

While college majors may not make much of a difference when it comes to getting hired, it does make a difference with average starting salaries. According to a 2013 National Association of Colleges and Employers Salary Survey, the highest average starting salary was $62,525 for engineering graduates, while the lowest was $37,058 for humanities and social science graduates.

Caitlin Safiran, who graduated this month from NIU with a degree in communications, said she's glad to have the degree she does, but did think that some people have an easier time finding a job because of what they studied in college. She is hopeful she will eventually land a job. 

In the meantime, she's been seeking another internship because she feels she needs more experience, but said she hasn't found much out there.

"A lot of things I'm finding I'm not qualified for, or not what I'm interested in," Safiran said. 

Lagana said it is important students seek internships and not rely on their college degree. Internships are one of the primary ways employers find new talent as they take time and money to train a person and don't want to lose them, he said. 

"Without an internship, you become a college graduate with a degree, and those are a dime a dozen," Lagana said. 

The national unemployment rate for college graduates has improved. For April 2013, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the unemployment rate for people with a bachelor's degree or higher was 3.9 percent. In the past five years, that unemployment rate was at its highest in 2009 with 4.8 percent.

Mack said it's too soon to tell how healthy the job market is for recent college graduates, but he said it will take a turn for the worse. He said he sees a definite decrease in the job market with the rise of technology. People who don't get jobs in their fields may have to fall back on jobs at fast-food restaurants and retail shops.

"In this economy, you have to do with what you can do to make it," Mack said.

Lagana said he thinks hiring has improved for college graduates in the past several years, at least for NIU grads. He said NIU saw as many employers at the university career and job fairs as it did in 2007, which was before the economic recession.

For the 2012-13 academic year, there were 14,000 employers at the fairs, compared with bout 12,000 employers the previous year, he said. Lagana said there has been a 7 percent increase in campus job interviews and 3 percent increase in job postings at the university compared to last year.

"The dashboard indicators are showing we got gas in the tank, the oil levels are good and we don't have the engine light on," Lagana said. 

Average starting salaries by discipline - April 2013

Business: $54,234
Communications: $43,145
Computer science: $59,977
Education: $40,480
Engineering: $62,525
Health sciences: $49,713
Humanities and social science: $37,058
Math and sciences: $42,724

Source: National Association of Colleges and Employers Salary Survey

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