Post-Recession Starting Salaries, Workloads Remain Disappointments

By Theresa Minton-Eversole Apr 27, 2010
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Continued weakness in the entry-level job market could force many newly minted graduates to accept low-paying service sector positions or forsake income entirely by volunteering or accepting unpaid internships, according to a survey of approximately 100 human resource professionals from myriad U.S. industries released April 14, 2010, by the global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

“Last year was an extremely tight job market for entry-level candidates,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “Even if this year is slightly better, the competition for available jobs will remain fierce. In fact, some of this year’s graduates may very well compete with some of last year’s graduates for positions.

“They will also be competing with other young people who received their diplomas within the last five years, had jobs and found themselves back in the labor pool once the recession hit,” he added. “These recent job seekers could prove to be the toughest competition for this year’s graduates, as they are likely to accept entry-level wages yet bring some on-the-job experience to the table.”

In the overall job market, there are more than five job seekers for every opening, based on the latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Those numbers show there were about 2.7 million job openings at the end of February 2010 and about 15 million unemployed Americans. These figures do not even account for the estimated 2.4 million 2009-2010 graduates who will enter the job market this spring armed with associate’s and bachelor’s degrees.

“This is not to say that soon-to-be graduates should give up hope,” said Challenger. “There are opportunities out there, but entry-level job seekers will have to dig for them. They may have to look outside of the industry or career path they envisioned pursuing immediately out of college. They may need to look in parts of the country they might not have considered previously. They will have to look beyond the on-campus job fairs.”

According to the Challenger survey, the graduates with the best chance of employment success are those with degrees in health care-related fields, such as nursing, physical therapy, pharmacy sciences and medical technician specialties. More than one in four respondents (26.3 percent) felt that these graduates would enjoy the most success.

Those earning a business degree were considered to be in the best position for this job market by 18 percent of respondents. Meanwhile, degrees in accounting/finance, engineering and computer science, which used to be considered surefire paths to employment, each received just 10 percent of the votes for offering the best chance of job-search success.

General-Purpose Degree?

“Having too-specialized a degree may not necessarily be a good asset in a recovering economy, unless you are specializing in health care fields where demand for new workers appears to be recession-proof. A general-purpose business degree gives graduates more flexibility and is likely to open a greater number of opportunities,” said Challenger.

“Some recent graduates are less concerned with starting salaries. In fact, they appear to be more willing to work for free if it means getting their foot in the door and obtaining valuable on-the-job experience. Unpaid internships used to be held primarily by those still in school. In today’s job market, recent graduates and even experienced job seekers are more willing to take these unpaid positions, and companies are more than happy to oblige,” said Challenger.

Soon-to-be graduates might consider volunteering at nonprofit organizations, while others might abandon the job search, opting to further their education, to live with parents or to travel.

“As the job market continues to improve over the next couple of years, those who can show some work experience are going to be in a better position than those who abandoned the job market entirely. For those who feel that opportunities are nonexistent, the best option may be a return to school. However, for many this is not an option financially and may simply return to live with their parents until steady income can be achieved,” said Challenger.

Among 2009 U.S. college graduates, 80 percent moved back home with their parents after graduation, according to a report by That was up from 77 percent in 2008, 73 percent in 2007 and 67 percent in 2006.

Wrong-Side-Up in Computer-Related Fields

Engineering, computer science and accounting might no longer be the fastest paths to employment, but they are among the most lucrative. A recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that eight of the top 10 best-paid majors are in engineering, with the highest-paid being petroleum engineering graduates, starting at $86,220. Computer science ranked fourth in the NACE survey, with graduates earning average starting salaries of $61,205.

But IT professionals who finally get their foot in the door might not be so impressed with what they find, according to Computerworld’s2010 Salary Survey of nearly 5,000 IT workers, published April 5, 2010. According to the survey, IT salaries for men and women stagnated in the past year, benefits have been cut and bonuses have been eliminated or decreased severely, with women’s bonuses even slashed 10 percent more than men's. In addition, workloads in many companies have grown exponentially. Not surprisingly, flat salaries and spiking workloads are affecting motivation and job satisfaction.

What's particularly difficult for IT professionals is that, as engineers, these individuals are devoted to ideas and forward motion, wrote Paul Glen, a Computerworld columnist, management consultant and frequent speaker, for the magazine. “When things slow down and we're just staying in place, it's hard; it violates assumptions about our value," he said. "We want to create innovation, lower costs, move things forward. But right now, it's mostly about keeping things running, and maintenance doesn't feel like progress."

There are signs, however, that hiring freezes might be thawing in the IT sector.A recent survey of 500 hiring managers and 500 workers conductedrecently byRobert Half International and CareerBuilder suggests that IT will be a focal point for post-recession hiring as employers begin addressing IT project backlogs. The expected increase in industry hiring and low employee morale revealed by the survey have some experts cautioning companies about the potential for employee turnover.

“By taking steps to boost morale and foster a positive culture, you'll see benefits beyond higher levels of employee motivation,” wrote Dave Wilmer, executive director for Robert Half Technology, in a June 2009 Computerworld column. “A positive work environment is one of the most effective and powerful retention and recruitment tools you can have. When employees enjoy their work, they're more likely to stay, and the most talented job candidates will naturally be drawn to an organization with a reputation for having a great corporate culture.”

Theresa Minton-Eversole is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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