John McElvany figured that if he studied hard, made good grades, and took an internship he'd land a good job in his field upon graduating in May 2009 from the University of Oklahoma.
But for 20 months after earning his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, he worked every day at a health food store. "It was a daily frustration, having put forward the time and effort to get that degree and it being used to work in a health food store," McElvaney says. "I'd worked there part-time for a couple of years, and they let me stay on and get all the hours I wanted after I graduated, so it was pretty much full-time. It was kind of a sweet deal, except that it wasn't what I wanted to be doing with my life."
McElvaney finally landed a job this February as a designer/draftsman with the same large industrial heating and cooling design and manufacturing company in Oklahoma City where he interned during his junior year at OU. He counted on at least a job offer from that firm upon graduation, but the company by then was laying off people. Despite many contacts and interviews with other companies in Oklahoma and in the Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, and Atlanta areas, he didn't receive a job offer until the Oklahoma City HVAC company resumed hiring early this year.
Hundreds of thousands of college graduates over the last four years can identify with that story. Only about 24 percent of the nearly 1.7 million May 2011 college graduates had a job lined up by the time they walked across the stage (same as in 2009). Another quarter of 2011's grads are headed to graduate school. That leaves half of all bachelor's degree earners this year-almost 900,000 of them-still looking for career-launching jobs.
The good news is that 2011 is shaping up to be a better year for college hiring than either 2010 or 2009. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) says employers expect to increase their college hiring by an average of 19 percent-but that's far from full recovery mode. In 2009, in the wake of the financial meltdown, college hiring tumbled 22 percent. It remained nearly flat in 2010. Thus, even with the projected 19 percent increase in collegiate hiring this year, more college grads than in the years before the meltdown are waiting tables, moving back home without a job, or taking positions that don't require a college degree.
In a normal labor market, says Philip Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, "Seniors who start looking in the fall usually have a job by spring, and those who start in January usually have one by about the time they graduate." The past two years, though, have been hard: Many 2009 and 2010 graduates will "struggle to get their careers back on track," says the NACE's Edwin Koc.
Grads from 2009 and 2010 won't be competing for the jobs companies want to fill from the latest crop of new graduates, Koc says. Instead they must convince recruiters who typically go after older, more experienced job seekers to give them the first shot they never got upon leaving school. He predicts that some college grads who didn't get hired in 2009, 2010, and 2011 will make it into their first "career path" job only in 2015 or 2016. And that's only if the current stuttering economic recovery takes hold.
Those dim career prospects have caused some academics to fret publicly about a "lost generation" of college grads. Richard White, director of career services at Rutgers University in New Jersey, says that's "too strong and dramatic." Still, he says, "recent college graduates will have a much more difficult time starting and sustaining their careers than earlier generations." The disappointments will be particularly hard on those whose self-esteem has far surpassed their talent (see sidebar below).
Many are making adjustments to their dreams and career plans. Brett Mackey, from Van, Texas, east of Dallas, graduated in May from Baylor University with a degree in international studies: "I'd wanted something more related to my degree, overseas, maybe doing government work or development work. But there just wasn't anything there that would support me that I was qualified for."
On a tip from Baylor's career services office Mackey looked into a Leadership Development Program at Allstate Insurance. He wound up being one of seven Baylor grads hired into Allstate's corporate offices in Chicago: "At first I wasn't very interested, but once I looked into it I started getting excited. It's just something I'd never imagined I'd be doing."
John Challenger, head of the Challenger, Gray & Christmas outplacement consulting firm, is not entirely pessimistic about today's college graduates and their career prospects. Besides, he says, "maybe it's better for this generation to have some tougher times to fight through. Look what going through tough times did for some of our great generations in the past."
Today's college students feel better about themselves than college freshmen of the 1960s did. San Diego State psychology professor Jean Twenge, writing in the online British journal Self and Identity, noted that in 2009 about half of the freshmen surveyed marked themselves as above average in social and intellectual confidence. That's 10-20 percentage points higher than in 1966.
"Having some degree of confidence is often a good thing," says Twenge. But she sees a growing disconnect between self-perception and reality: "It's not just confidence. It's overconfidence." At fault, she says, is the self-esteem "every child is special" mentality and "tiger" parents who push their children to achieve.
Jeffrey Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University, doesn't object to Twenge's findings, but he says the overemphasis on negative stereotypes might overshadow positive trends. He points to lower rates in crime and substance abuse among college students, and greater willingness to perform community service: In 1990, 17 percent of college freshmen said they would likely participate in public service, compared to nearly a third of freshmen in 2010.
Janelle Mills, a junior at Stetson University in Florida, says she and her peers get tired of "entitled" and "lazy" labels. She says the study contains some truth about overconfidence: "Kids are being encouraged to be the best that they can be. . . . Modesty and humility are no longer common and are becoming harder to find."