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University of Iowa Students Could Still Have Difficulty Finding Jobs After Graduation, Despite Improving Economy

Even though things are getting better, unemployment and underemployment rates are especially high among recent college graduates, with a new batch of students beginning their job search soon.

By Ben Moore
IowaWatch.org

"Exhaustive, expensive, and occasionally humiliating" is how Hannah Kane, 22, described job hunting after graduating from the University of Iowa in May 2011 with a bachelor's degree in cinema.

"Interviewing at Hy-Vee between high school kids got old fast," Kane said. "It was a good lesson in humility."

Living in Iowa City, Kane eventually was hired by Best Buy in Coralville before leaving for jobs at both the Iowa City Public Library and University of Iowa Main Library until she can find a job more suited to her field of study.

About 20 percent of college graduates wind up in jobs they could have had without setting foot in college, according to a 2009 analysis by Andrew M. Sum, a Northeastern University economist. Waiting tables, working retail and tending bars are common ways for these college graduates to make ends meet.

The economy has improved substantially since 2009 and unemployment, especially in Iowa, is falling.

But Michael Blackmon lives unemployed in Mount Pleasant. Blackmon, 23, graduated from the UI when Kane did with a double major in cinema and English. "I get online and look around where I live and there isn't much there," he said. "Most of the job searching has just resulted in frustration."

Blackmon has found only temporary work since graduating. He described a two-day job cleaning air ducts at the UI. What did it have to do with his major?

"Absolutely nothing," said Blackmon, who recently was accepted into the master's program at the University of York in England to continue his English studies.

The struggles of Kane and Blackmon may be related to their chosen degrees. The three college majors with the highest unemployment percentages in a 2011 report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce were: clinical psychology (19.5 percent), miscellaneous fine arts (16.2 percent) and U.S. history (15.1 percent).

The UI, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa survey their recent graduates about employment but the data don’t tell a complete story because some graduates decline to respond to the survey. Moreover, the surveys do not indicate if the employed graduates are in their chosen field of study.

Taren Reker Crow, career services coordinator at ISU, said a student’s major in college has little to do with finding a job. Getting in front of employers does, she said.

"I've had students who are very successful because they've taken advantage of their resources," Crow said. Internships, career fairs and leadership positions on campus give students invaluable networking opportunities, she said.

Less conventional opportunities also are important. "I've had students get jobs just because they struck up random conversations in a restaurant," Crow said.

Robert Frederick, director of career services at UNI, emphasized acquiring skills. "When you walk in the door, what are you going to bring?" Frederick said.

George Neumann, an economics professor at the UI, said public universities can shoulder some blame because they have too many courses that do little to help students. He also said classes need not be a semester long, noting that Stanford University's class catalogue is filled with three-week and four-week courses.

"Someone is going to have to bite the bullet and say, 'If you want to get a degree, these are the skill sets you have to have,'" Neumann said.

College majors don't effectively communicate a student's skills, he added. "It's not clear where you would employ a sociologist or English major.”

Individual certificates might be a favorable alternative to the traditional major, Neumann said. They would validate a student's demonstrable skill set and be more practical, he said.

Neumann said universities should overhaul curricula to focus more on developing skills rather than fulfilling a checklist of educational requirements.

Kerry Koonce, communications director for Iowa Workforce Development, said jobs are opening in Iowa. "There has been steady growth in the last six months and consumer spending has been going up," Koonce said. "It's the natural rebound of the recession."

Koonce said manufacturing is adding jobs after a decline during the recent recession. Job markets in health care and agriculture have been strong but information technology has been stagnant.

As of March, Iowa Workforce figures show the state with a 5.2 percent unemployment rate, 3 percentage points lower than the national rate.

Ben Moore is a senior majoring in journalism at the University of Iowa

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