Where the Jobs Are, and the College Grads Aren't

Students prefer to study things employers aren't willing to pay for.

By + More

Dear Graduating Seniors: Apparently you're hosed.

It's no secret that it's a tough job market for new college grads, as it is for many other workers. But it may be worse than that. Some critics complain that today's grads are narcissistic and fragile, with fanciful expectations of easy work and high pay.

"Your prospective employers can smell BS from miles away," commentator Bret Stephens advised the class of 2012 recently in the Wall Street Journal. "And most of you don't even know how badly you stink."

[See the 10 best cities to find a job in.]

There may be some truth to that, but there's also a more elementary problem: Many students are not graduating with the skills or background employers are looking for. This mismatch between what students are interested in doing, and what employers are willing to pay for, may be the biggest impediment to a rewarding career for the newest generation of American workers.

To illustrate the problem, here are 10 of the most and least popular majors that college students choose, with a brief analysis of the job prospects relating to each:

Business (chosen as a major by 22 percent of students, according to the National Center on Education Statistics). This is the most popular major, and it's one that lines up well with opportunities in the economy. In the latest survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, for example, 63 percent of companies said they were looking to hire business majors, second-highest after engineering. Industry-research firm IBISWorld predicts strong growth over the next five years in industries such as business services, human resources, and management consulting. If anything, there's a case for more students majoring in business.

Social sciences / history (11 percent of grads). Only 16 percent of employers are looking to hire people who majored in these fields, and few professions provide an obvious career path for workers with these degrees. That means grads who majored in these areas probably need to get additional skills or training before they'll get hired for professional work with decent pay.

[See 6 reasons America will rebound.]

Health professions (8 percent of grads). Healthcare has long been considered a recession-proof field, but mounting pressure to cut costs could limit job growth in the future. IBISWorld predicts that fields such as nursing and outpatient care will add more jobs than average over the next five years, but staffing at hospitals and doctors' offices will barely grow. A degree preparing you for a career in healthcare may not be as safe a bet as it once was.

Education (6 percent of grads). There's a big mismatch here. This is the fourth most popular major, but ongoing budget cuts at all levels of government will depress demand for teachers and administrators for the next several years. Education is the least-sought major in the NACE hiring survey, and IBISWorld predicts below-average job growth in every segment of education except private schools.

Psychology (6 percent of grads). This major doesn't even register on the list of what employers are looking for. And expected job growth in the field over the next five years is just 3.6 percent, far below average. Is there a diagnosis for that?

[See how student debt is threatening the recovery.]

Visual and performing arts (6 percent of grads). Jobs in this field account for less than 0.5 percent of the overall labor force. You do the math.

Engineering (5 percent of grads). This is the most-sought major by employers, with strong job growth expected in associated fields. The economy could probably absorb two or three times as many engineering grads.

Biological sciences (5 percent of grads). If you can tough it out in this demanding major, you're probably in good shape. The biomedical industry, for example, is likely to be a major source of healthcare innovation in the future. Jobs in scientific research and development should grow by a healthy 14 percent over the next five years, according to IBISWorld.

Computer and information science (2.4 percent of grads). Every one of the top 10 trends on job-search website Indeed.com involves technology or social media. Job growth in E-commerce, Internet publishing, and other information-technology fields is expected to be far stronger than average for the foreseeable future. And, oh yeah, the dream startup Facebook was founded and built by coders, not by psych majors.

Physical sciences (1.4 percent of grads). This type of major lands in the middle of the list of what employers are looking for in new hires. Yet only a tiny fraction of students major in science. They'll be the lucky ones when it comes to looking for a job.

These numbers clearly support a common refrain: There are too many liberal arts graduates and not nearly enough science and engineering students. Your college major, of course, doesn't lock you into any given field, and many people do go on to get new training that makes them more appealing to employers.

But students with a ken for liberal arts—who often argue that expanding your mind is more important than learning technical knowledge—might want to reverse their thinking. Perhaps your investment in education should go toward learning things you can earn a living at, with intellectual stimulation coming later, when you can afford the indulgence. Otherwise, college can turn out to be a mighty expensive hobby.

Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.