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Holding out for the right fit

Editor's note: This is the third section of a three-part series assessing the rebounding job market for Duke seniors. Today's article looks at the growing trend of underutilized degrees and how Duke students are affected. Monday's article focuses on the new opportunities and career paths available to graduates. Tuesday's article analyzes why the finance industry attracts so many recent graduates.

With graduation looming in less than three weeks, some seniors are feeling the pressure to finalize their postgraduate plans.

In recent years, at least 15 percent of Duke seniors have graduated while still seeking employment. But for many students, simply getting a job is not the end goal. Duke students often hold out for positions that further their education and advance their career interests. In doing so, some take temporary jobs and join the growing number of American college graduates who do not fully utilize their degrees.

Students who fall under this trend are still categorized as employed in national reports. Jennifer Wolff, Trinity ’10, considers herself employed but works in short two- to three-month long increments and lives at home. At graduation, Wolff knew she was pursuing a challenging field—costume design and technology—but did not expect to struggle getting even a minimum wage job.

“I applied to work at bookstores, at bridal shops, at restaurants as a waitress—it’s impossible,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like, I graduated from Duke. I should be more useful to society.”

In 2011, approximately 53.6 percent of bachelor’s degree-holders under age 25 were jobless or underemployed, the highest share in at least 11 years, according to an analysis of government data conducted by the Associated Press released Monday. About half of those young graduates were underemployed, an increase from 2010.

It is unclear how many Duke graduates like Wolff believe they are underutilizing their degrees because neither the Career Center nor the Alumni Association surveys alumni regarding this question.

The Career Center, which coordinates on-campus recruiting and maintains the eRecruiting database, encourages students to focus on finding a job that fits their career aspirations, said William Wright-Swadel, Fannie Mitchell executive director of the Career Center. Doing so may mean that students will spend two to three months jobless after graduation before finding the right opportunity.

“I worry more about students finding ‘the’ job rather than ‘a’ job,” Wright-Swadel said.

But in waiting for “the” job, some students may find themselves postponing their entry into the labor market.

College graduates’ first job out of school can be a strong indicator of their future career paths and starting out in less-than-ideal work can set back students’ careers, said Phil Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. Therefore, some of those students find it harder to get back on track,

“We can’t afford to have people who are misaligned in the labor market for very long,” Gardner said.

Feeling the pressure

Although some Duke students struggle to find the right job, graduates from smaller, lesser-known institutions feel greater effects of economic downturns and are more likely to be underemployed, said Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations.

“Coming out, the cliches of the barista with an expensive college degree are not untrue,” Schoenfeld said.

Some experts noted that the opportunities available to Duke students shield them somewhat from this trend, as well as from the harshest effects of the financial crisis.

The stronger the brand of a university, the less affected its graduates will be by poor economic conditions, said Edwin Koc, director of strategic and foundation research at the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Places like Duke remain prime places for recruiters even when hiring rates fall nationally, he added.

Research shows that institutional differences wane after graduation, and often, the advantages several students experience over others based on their schooling level out. But at least initially, some employers place more value on degrees from institutions like Duke over other schools, said Kevin Rask, an expert in student choice and higher education and an economics professor at Colorado College.

“The top selective schools have become more selective and competition has increased, where everyone else has faced a downward trend in selectivity,” said Rask, Economics ’91. “It should be bothersome that college graduates, which is already a ‘haves’ group, is seeing this widening stratification.”

At Elon University, a top regional university in North Carolina, about 10 percent of students are in work six months after graduation that is misaligned with their long-term career interests, said Tom Vecchione, executive director of career services at Elon. This means that some graduates are not reaching their potential, he added.

“There are a lot of gems out there—diamonds in the rough—who have not been tapped into,” Vecchione said.

Some Duke students also choose to categorize themselves as “still seeking” at graduation rather than take a job that is misaligned with their interests.

Students like senior and former Olympian Becca Ward would rather stay the course than take a less desirable job. Ward, who won a 2008 Olympic bronze medal in fencing and is a three-time NCAA champion in the sport, has been actively applying for jobs in environmental policy since September but has yet to secure employment.

“If I don’t have anything by the time I graduate, I’m going to go to D.C. and just pound the pavement,” Ward said. “That stresses me out, but I’m not going to take a job that I don’t want to do.”


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