The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why getting a good job is so much harder for today’s college graduates

Scene of newly minted college graduates (AP file photo/Matt Rourke)

The spring semester is approaching its halfway point on college campuses, and for the graduating class of 2017 that means many seniors will be kicking their job search into high gear.

The good news is that all signs point to a strong hiring cycle this year for new graduates. Eight out of every 10 employers describe the college labor market as good to excellent, according to an annual survey by the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, which received responses from more than 4,300 employers. Nearly 90 percent of them hired a new graduate last year, and all of them expect to hire again this year.

But even such rosy numbers won’t give parents of college seniors less anxiety about their return on the college investment until their children move out of the house and start making ends meet on their own. And for this generation of college graduates, making that transition from school to career is more treacherous now than it was for graduates even a decade ago, said Phil Gardner, director of the Michigan State employment center.

“College students are enjoying the longest run in job growth since the late 1990s, but that doesn’t mean navigating the job market is easy,” he told me.

Three primary developments in the job market make it more difficult for today’s graduates compared to their parents.

First, Gardner said, the size and makeup of companies recruiting on campuses has shifted, altering the entire hiring process. In the 1980s, campus recruiting was dominated by three primary industries— manufacturing, retail and finance— and a few big corporations controlled each of those sectors. That meant the big employers set the recruiting calendar, and everyone else followed along. It was an easy process for students and campuses to understand. In 1985, GM and Dow Chemical, combined, hired 340 Michigan State graduates, Gardner told me. In recent years, those two companies hired only a few dozen students from Michigan State.

There are more employers today, each of them recruiting fewer students, and all have specific needs and timetables for students to track. Companies that build things no longer dominate the economy; business and professional services that reorganize those old-line companies now do.

Nonprofit and government agencies also loom over hiring in a way they didn’t in the past. Teach for America and AmeriCorps are among the top 10 destinations for Michigan State graduates today, and several other nonprofit organizations fill spots in the top 15. In the 1980s, nonprofits occupied none of those spots. In a nationwide survey, more than 40 percent of the class of 2015 said they wanted to work for the government, at the federal, state or local level.

[Want more jobs? Give high school students more exposure to training for a variety of careers]

Second, employers have raised the bar on the skills workers need to start a job on day one and are less involved in employee training. Young adults are largely on their own to acquire those skills. Doing so becomes increasingly challenging because the rules keep shifting. Only a quarter of companies have specific hiring targets when they start campus recruiting, according to surveys by Michigan State.

Workplaces are engaging in more on-demand or last-minute hiring, so students can’t know even months in advance what they need to know for a job, let alone before signing up for classes or before picking a major.

“We’re asking 23-year-old new graduates to act like 35-year-old experienced workers,” Gardner said.

In the old days, Fortune 500 companies put new hires into “rotational programs” that allowed them to move around different departments to learn about the company and its culture, as well as various jobs. Many of those programs have been eliminated in corporate cost-cutting.

The third major development, according to Gardner, is the increased velocity of today’s economy. Entire industries have been disrupted by technology and globalization in recent years, even stalwarts like law, accounting and medicine.

Yet colleges are under more pressure than ever to help their students find precise routes into careers when those routes don’t exist anymore. In a 2015 survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education, two-thirds of college leaders said more discussions about job preparation were occurring on campus compared with just three years earlier.

[Is a college degree the new high school diploma? Here’s why your degree’s worth is stagnant.]

But what kinds of jobs are campuses supposed to be preparing students for? How does anyone know what the job market might look like in two or four years? Entire industries are disappearing almost overnight, and legacy companies are quickly changing course. In one recent year, Gardner told me, Procter & Gamble hired graduates from 86 different majors at Michigan State, reflecting both its new lines of business and its eagerness to hedge its bets to find the right match.

As a result of these trends in the labor market, college seniors these days no longer have as clear or straightforward a career path as previous generations did. They are part of a much more complex, fragmented workforce with many overlapping pathways. Compared to their parents, who had maps with clearly marked trails for their careers, these soon-to-be graduates face wide-open seas as they chart their next 30-plus years.