Georgetown Study Sheds Light on College Majors and Employability

Dr. Anthony Carnevale is director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Dr. Anthony Carnevale is director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

When it comes to selecting a major, college-bound high school students should “do their homework” so that they have a better sense of what their job prospects and expected salary will be in a given profession before they commit to a particular field of study. 

So argue the authors of a new report that the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce released Wednesday titled “Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings – Not All College Degrees Are Created Equal.” 

The report found that unemployment rates are much higher for recent graduates who majored in architecture and the arts—13.9 and 11.1 percent, respectively—than for those who graduated in other majors. Recent graduates who majored in education and health experienced unemployment rates of 5.4 percent, the report found. 

Salary-wise, recent graduates who majored in engineering tended to make the most–$55,000 per year—while those who majored in psychology, social work and the arts tended to make $30,000 out of college. 

Dr. Anthony Carnevale, lead author and director of the Center on Education and the Workforce, which put out the report with funding from the Lumina Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said it’s important for students to have access to such information so that they don’t waste time and money in college on something that’s not going to pay off. 

“I think these are facts that people should be aware of,” Carnevale said of how much recent graduates in a particular major earn and what their unemployment rates tend to be. “That is, given the cost of going to college and the time it takes to get that done, it is a very substantial investment.” 

“It is essentially for most people the most substantial career investment they’ll make outside the job in their lives, and they’re talking about an investment that will need to provide them with substantial income for over a 45-year career,” Carnevale said. “In the end it really does determine what you’re going to be doing after breakfast for the next 45 years.” 

Others in the field of labor study cautioned, however—and Carnevale agreed—that hiring prospects and salary expectations should not be the only thing that students consider when selecting a major. 

“Particularly given that, over time, things change,” noted Dr. C. Douglas Johnson, associate professor of management at Georgia Gwinnett College. “What’s a hot job today may not be 10 years from now.” 

Johnson also cautioned that “each job has a personality.” 

“So if you’re going into a job based on what you think the projected compensation is and you get that job and you’re not satisfied, then you’re going to be working in a job where you’re not pursuing your passion and you’re less engaged in the job,” Johnson said. “So then you have the potential of having to go back through the process of trying to figure out what your passion is and then pursuing it and losing several years in a profession where you could have been more satisfied and then made up that salary gain.” 

“So it’s important,” he added, “to look at it from a bigger perspective and try to take into account what your personality and your values are and how congruent those are with the values of the job.” 

Job satisfaction—or lack thereof—is not something to be taken likely. 

In his new book, The Coming Jobs War, Jim Clifton, CEO and chairman of Gallup, the worldwide polling firm, argues that the “misery quotient” is often overlooked when it comes to discussions about what it takes to make America more prosperous. 

Miserable employees, Clifton says, ultimately hurt the entire country because they drive away customers, which kills business. 

” I’ve observed that employee misery precedes all the easy-to-find data by one day to two years, depending on the type of business,” Clifton writes in a chapter titled “High-Energy Workplaces.” 

“Somebody in the company needs to treat a customer like hell for between one day and two years before the customer will defect,” Clifton says. “Customer defections are immediately followed by job loss.” 

Others cautioned that students shouldn’t make their selection of a major based on a temporary situation, such as job prospects at a given time. 

Robert Ivy, CEO of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), acknowledged that a “prolonged economic slump has certainly had an adverse effect on the architecture profession in general, as well as those with recent degrees in architecture looking for work.” 

But he didn’t think that was reason enough for students to pass up architecture altogether.

“Of course it makes sense for anyone selecting a college course of study to ‘do their homework’ about income levels, employability and so on,” Ivy said. “But sometimes in situations like these, it’s not so cut and dry.” 

“Most people who pursue a career in architecture do so as a ‘calling,’” Ivy continued, noting a 2010 AIA study that found that most laid-off architects plan to return to the field when the economy rebounds. 

“I feel that it would likely be reactionary and counterproductive in the grand scheme of things for students interested in, and passionate about, architecture to abandon their career plans because the industry has been adversely and disproportionately affected by the overall recent economic woes,” Ivy said. 

For Carnevale, the situation comes down to a simple matter of being informed.   

“Pretty much, people should have better information,” Carnevale said, “and they can make up their own minds.”