One of the frequent complaints one hears from humanities professors and figures in the “softer” social sciences is that students and a growing number of higher education officials, consultants, and commentators regard college more and more as a job-training program. While driving across the country this week, I heard Rush Limbaugh declare that the only point of going to college was to find a job—nothing about general knowledge and skills that go with citizenship and being an adult of taste and discernment and historical understanding.
The economic crisis makes their workforce-readiness arguments even stronger, and this story in The Fiscal Times adds an aggravating component to it. It bears the headline “The Lost Grads: Born into the Wrong Job Market,” and it focuses on graduating classes of '08-'10 who left school only to find that employers weren’t hiring. The result, according to the Economic Policy Institute: college grads under 25 have an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent, while older grads have a rate of 4.4 percent.
Common sense, along with a realistic sense of the world’s ups and downs, would say that recent grads may suffer a bit for a few years, but when the economy bounces back they will find jobs and prosper like previous cohorts did. But, as it turns out, employment doesn’t work that way. If you graduate and don’t find a decent job within a year, your resume contains a jobless gap that taints you for the rest of your life. You become “damaged goods.” As the story puts it:
“And even though college hiring has improved slightly in the last two years, grads from a few years ago aren’t likely to benefit. Not only do they have to compete for positions with the 2.1 million older college graduates who are currently unemployed, they also have to worry about younger grads. College-educated workers with little professional experience may seem interchangeable, but job placement experts say that’s not the way it works. ‘Employers favor most recent grads,’ says Steven Rothenberg, founder of CollegeRecruiter.com, the big Internet job board. Rothenberg says his company sees twice as many job seekers who have been out of school for a year or more as they did five years ago. ‘If you graduated two years ago,’ he says. ‘You’re going to have a very difficult time getting hired by a Fortune 500 company.’”
So, the days of leaving college to jump around from half-job to half-job, or to travel and “find yourself,” or to just hang out for awhile before joining the rat race are over. If you do it, there are consequences.
This places even greater pressure on 18-year-olds to regard their college years in vocational terms. Forget the quaint notion of learning-for-learning’s-sake. Courses in art history and medieval literature are but a digression. Courses should implant job skills that grads can implement instantly. That’s all employers will care about—Can you do the job?
The pressure should steer them toward desired majors as well. Of the lost ones interviewed for the article, one was a sociology/Spanish major, another one a food science major, and one more a communications major. No math majors, engineers, or biochemists were quoted in the piece.