WASHINGTON The college class of 2012 is in for a rude welcome to the world of work.
A weak labor market already has left half of young college graduates either jobless or underemployed in positions that dont fully use their skills and knowledge.
Young adults with bachelors degrees are increasingly scraping by in lower-wage jobs waiter or waitress, bartender, retail clerk or receptionist, for example and thats confounding their hopes a degree would pay off despite higher tuition and mounting student loans.
An analysis of government data conducted for The Associated Press lays bare the highly uneven prospects for holders of bachelors degrees.
Opportunities for college graduates vary widely.
While theres strong demand in science, education and health fields, arts and humanities founder. Median wages for those with bachelors degrees are down from 2000, hit by technological changes that are eliminating mid-level jobs such as bank tellers. Most future job openings are projected to be in lower-skilled positions such as home health aides, who can provide personalized attention as the U.S. population ages.
Taking underemployment into consideration, the job prospects for bachelors degree holders fell last year to the lowest level in more than a decade.
I dont even know what Im looking for, says Michael Bledsoe, who described months of fruitless job searches as he served customers at a Seattle coffeehouse. The 23-year-old graduated in 2010 with a creative-writing degree.
Initially hopeful that his college education would create opportunities, Bledsoe languished for three months before finally taking a job as a barista, a position he has held for the last two years. In the beginning, he sent out three or four résumés day. But, Bledsoe said, employers questioned his lack of experience or the practical worth of his major. Now, he sends out a résumé once every two weeks or so.
Bledsoe, currently making just above minimum wage, says he got financial help from his parents to help pay off student loans. He is now considering whether to go to graduate school, seeing few other options to advance his career.
There is not much out there, it seems, he said.
His situation highlights a widening but little-discussed labor problem. Perhaps more than ever, the choices that young adults make earlier in life level of schooling, academic field and training, where to attend college, how to pay for it are having long-lasting financial impact.
You can make more money on average if you go to college, but its not true for everybody, says Harvard economist Richard Freeman, noting the growing risk of a debt bubble with total U.S. student loan debt surpassing $1 trillion. If youre not sure what youre going to be doing, it probably bodes well to take some job, if you can get one, and get a sense first of what you want from college.
Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University who analyzed the numbers, said many people with a bachelors degree face a double whammy of rising tuition and poor job outcomes.
Simply put, were failing kids coming out of college, he said, emphasizing that when it comes to jobs, a college major can make all the difference. Were going to need a lot better job growth and connections to the labor market, otherwise college debt will grow.
By region, the Mountain West was most likely to have young college graduates jobless or underemployed about 3 in 5. It was followed by the more rural southeastern U.S., including Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. The Pacific region, including Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington, also was high on the list.
On the other end of the scale, the southern U.S., anchored by Texas, was most likely to have young college graduates in higher-skill jobs.