Is College Graduate Unemployment an Epidemic?

We tend to think of epidemics only in terms of infectious diseases, but the word can be accurately applied in many social situations. According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, an epidemic is defined as something "affecting or tending to affect a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community or region at the same time; characterized by very widespread growth or extent." According to this definition, it would appear that almost any calamity that can be measured within a population and show to be negatively impacting an excessively large and growing percentage of individuals, could qualify as an epidemic.

We have all heard the anecdotal claims about a son or daughter who had to move back home after graduation because of an unsuccessful job search, but does this constitute an epidemic? We have read reports about employers being more selective in their hiring processes due to an unfavorable economy and business environment, but is this a trend that should cause us alarm? Sure, we have heard that the curriculum in most college academic programs has not kept pace with the technical demands of the workforce, but does this really matter? Should college be about education or about job preparation? You might think this a hypothetical question with an obvious answer, but you would be surprised at how many people take opposing positions on this subject.

There is strong data, going back for decades, to confirm a four-year college degree increases one's earning potential over a lifetime. But there is equally compelling data that shows a disturbing trend among young college graduates who are presently out of work. While I could easily reference reams of survey results to make my case, I fear no amount of statistical citation will win this debate. And in the final analysis, it is not really about the numbers; it is about perceptions.

If you are the young college graduate who is unemployed or who has settled for a job that does not even require a degree, then you are encountering an epidemic. If you are the employer who is seriously struggling to keep your business afloat in very uncertain times and with few resources, you are also experiencing an epidemic. If you are the college professor who is teaching the same things today as you did 10 years ago and sincerely wondering why the results are not the same for your current students, you too are dealing with an epidemic.

It fits the definition. The national unemployment rate for young adults ages 20-29 with bachelor's degrees is alarmingly high -- nearly 13 percent. It is affecting a disproportionately large number of individuals at the same time. It is pervasively widespread and growing. College graduate unemployment is at epidemic proportions in the U.S. today, and we can either debate it or deal with it. Unless changes are made, the unemployment dilemma for young college graduates will very likely continue to worsen. Finding a remedy for this epidemic will take time and require everyone to reconsider their current beliefs and positions.

  • Young college goers need to make more market-informed decisions about their education. Selecting a college major that is in low demand in the current job market will open about as many doors as having no degree at all. If it is job preparation that you are expecting out of your education, then you should pursue a degree with a proven track-record for job placement. Rather than an education that is "well-rounded," you should be looking for an education that is "outcome focused," with applied teaching methods and industry-based internships.

  • Employers who cannot afford to reinvest in on-the-job training programs, like they had in place before the recession, will need to look for alternative methods to recruit new talent. Hiring untrained workers with little or no experience, and expecting them to perform highly complex operations, will only serve to frustrate everyone involved. If you are an employer with a need for highly skilled workers, you should seek to partner with colleges who are willing to customize their curriculum to address the specific needs of your industry.
  • College educators must reexamine their mission statements in light of present day realities. After all, increasing one's earning potential over a lifetime means nothing to someone who cannot get a job in the first place. The job market facing today's college graduates is far more demanding than the job market a decade ago, and the curriculum at your institution needs to be assessed and revised accordingly. If you truly wish to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, publishing information about the employability of your graduates would be a good place to start.
  • Together, we can stop this epidemic and find solutions for the many young people whose lives have already been impacted. College should be about education as well as job preparation. They are not mutually exclusive concepts.