Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Job prospects for recent Oklahoma college grads vary by major, study says

Architecture and arts degrees topped the list of recent graduate jobless rates in a Georgetown University study released last week. Oklahoma higher education officials say many of those trends are reflected across the state.

BY SILAS ALLEN, sallen@opubco.com Oklahoman
January 10, 2012

Although a bachelor's degree is still a good hedge against unemployment, job prospects for recent college graduates vary drastically by major, according to a recent study.

The study, “Hard Times, College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings: Not All College Degrees Are Created Equal,” was conducted by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. It was released Wednesday.

The jobless rate for recent college graduates with bachelor's degrees stands at about 8.9 percent, the report states. Although the report characterizes that figure as “unacceptable,” recent graduates still fared better than job seekers with only a high school diploma, who saw an unemployment rate of 22.9 percent. High school dropouts saw an “almost unthinkable” 31.5 percent rate, according to the study.

Even within recent college graduates, the statistics vary widely.

In general, the study suggests, majors that are linked closely to occupations tend to have better employment prospects after graduation. Electrical engineering majors, for example, had a 7.3 percent unemployment rate, while the rate for philosophy and religious studies majors was 10.8 percent.

But that trend doesn't hold true across the board. Unemployment tended to be higher for majors in fields with low demand. Architecture majors, for example, saw the highest unemployment rate with 13.9 percent. Recent graduates with information systems degrees had an unemployment rate of 11.7 percent.

More experienced workers, who are defined as workers ages 30 to 54 years old, tended to fare better in most fields. More experienced information systems workers had an unemployment rate of just 5.4 percent. Because of that trend, the report predicts computer-related majors will bounce back as the recovery progresses.

A temporary trend

Many of those trends are reflected in Oklahoma's colleges and universities, in particular the drop in demand for architecture majors.

“We have experienced that same thing here,” said Bette Scott, director of Career Services at the University of Oklahoma.

Nationwide, construction has slowed since the onset of the recession, and Scott said that's led to a drop in demand for architects. That trend also affects recent graduates in other fields, such as interior design and construction science, she said.

Still, Scott said, that issue isn't a detriment to OU's College of Architecture. The slowdown in hiring is a temporary trend, she said.

“All majors have their hiring ups and downs,” she said.

Pam Ehlers, Oklahoma State University's director of career services, disputed some of the study's findings, particularly in the information technology sector. Ehlers' office handles graduates from all of the university's campuses, including OSU Institute of Technology in Okmulgee.

“Information technology students are in high demand,” she said.

Conventional wisdom has long held that graduates with degrees in liberal arts fields like philosophy and history will have a harder time finding employment than those with more technical degrees. That holds true at OSU, she said, where students with degrees in fields like accounting and engineering seem to be faring fairly well.

Weathering the storm

In general, Ehlers said, Oklahoma seems to have weathered the recession better than many other states. As older workers retire, she said, companies recruit younger workers to take their place, keeping unemployment from skyrocketing.

That being said, Oklahoma hasn't been completely spared the effects of the recession. In 2007, before the economic downturn took hold, recruitment of recent graduates was at “crazy levels,” she said.

Ehlers said she doesn't expect Oklahoma will see those levels again anytime soon. But recruiting appears to be picking up, she said. The university holds its spring semester career fair in February, Ehlers said. During last year's fair, 94 employers came to campus to meet with students, she said. As of this week, 113 employers have signed up for this year's career fair.

That increase in recruiting has also existed at OU, Scott said, and has largely been driven by the oil and natural gas industry. Those companies typically come to campus looking for engineering majors, she said, but they also need to hire other employees, like accountants and human resources representatives.

While the recovery is still far from complete, Scott said she thinks Oklahoma is beginning to shake off the effects of the recession.

“I think we're coming out of it,” she said. “We don't expect it's going to turn around overnight.”

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