Job market for college graduates remains strong

Oct 22, 2018

Employers will continue to face tough competition for talent in the 2018/19 job market thanks to an eight-year growth streak in the college labor market. That's according to Michigan State University's Recruiting Trends, the largest annual survey of employers in the nation. "This year's graduates will enter one of the longest sustained periods of growth, which puts them at an advantage," says the survey's author, MSU researcher, Phil Gardner.

Phil Gardner: The news is good. It's been very consistent with the national labor market scene. We're seeing continued improvement in job opportunities for undergrads. Entering at the end of this last academic year, we entered the eighth year of growth. Rather, in the last four years, we have seen double digit growth at the bachelor's level. It's been really robust and rather spectacular. It's really hard to sustain that, but my concern was maybe that there would be a real shutdown. But we haven't seen that. In a nutshell, what we've got here is at the bachelor's level and overall an 8.5 percent increase. If you look at it in context, we've shifted from 15 to 20 percent to 8 1/2, but this is more sustainable.

We've got an issue that's now merging throughout the way market is. We just don't have any supply left. If you keep going at 15 percent, we just aren't putting out that many more graduates a year. If you add in the fact that some of them aren't ready to step into the labor market, employers just aren't going to  take them just because they're a warm body. In this recovery and  in earlier really competitive labor markets, they take anybody, but they're not now. There are some kids who still are struggling in this transition because they didn't do what they needed to do, or there were reasons that they didn't take opportunities to get those internships or whatever kind of experience they needed related to their major. Or they waited too late. Does that mean that they're dead? No, there is a lot of opportunities.

Russ White: The main concern for employers is the number of qualified employees and the skills they possess.

Gardner: They're just worried about the number of students who are available that are qualified to be in pools but don’t have the package of skills and competencies and experiences that lend to the positions that are hiring for. They're comfortable with the knowledge that they've learned in their degrees, but what they don't have are the softer people skills that allow them to participate and do different kinds of things in different contexts.

We call them boundary spanning skills. The depth and breadth is really important, and it's the breadth that employers are really, really worried about. A lot of this has to do with an argument that people in IO psych and others talk to me about is we don't know if it's something you can teach or it's just something that's nurtured and it's in our personalities and some are better at it as they gain confidence in doing it. A lot of these combination of skills and things just come through a lot of practice, a lot of encouragement, things that we don't often have time in college to do because you're busy with commitments both to do well in your courses and other things that the students choose to do that may not necessarily provide the experiences they need to develop these skills.

It's not learned at work, but you need to have these experiences that challenge students to develop some of these skills and practice them. That means you have to have mentors there or people who can coach them. It requires a different mindset that isn't always consistently available on many college campuses. While I do believe that there a lot of students who possess the ability to do those, if they're never been asked to do them or they've never been coached on how to do them, they really don't have the confidence to just draw on them and use them.

White: Gardner advises students to start thinking about preparing for a career almost as soon as they get their feet under them as freshmen.

Gardner: There's this compelling need for students to realize that they have to think about these things earlier. You can't wait until your junior year or the second semester of your junior year to get an internship for the summer so everything will be right your senior year. A lot of those decisions are already made now. You have to start thinking about it at the second semester of your freshman year of what do I need to now in the next year to position myself to get an assistantship if I don't get one in my sophomore year? But a surprising number are getting them in their sophomore year. What does that mean for planning? How do I take the information I get early on to reaffirm that this is really what I want to do? There’s this idea that a degree leads to a job, and the whole question is: How can we help these people understand what they don't know when they don't know what to ask and how to prepare?

It's frustrating because students, young people, always think they know everything and don't need to ask. Then it's like the world dropped out from under them when they get out there and they find out just what they learned in class isn't going to carry them very far. Trying to build an understanding in young people that they have to make some of these academic and professional decisions in lockstep with each other. You don't just put one off until then. That's hard to do. It's hard to change a mindset when they have a whole set of other priorities, but that's the nub of the thing. Everything's being compressed now to start earlier just preparing yourself to transition into the workplace. One of the things that I hope we can continue to strive for is to prepare students, not to get that first job, but for the disruptions that are going to occur after that. Whether it's technology or a downturn in the business cycle, they're going to  have to be prepared to make moves and adjust.

To learn more, Google "Michigan State University Recruiting Trends." MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 105.1FM and AM 870.