Starting Salaries, Demand for Graduates Slipping, Study Shows

By SHRM Online Staff Sep 11, 2009

The economy’s negatively affecting salaries for nearly every profession, so it’s no surprise that starting salary offers to new college graduates are slipping, too. The declines, seemingly small at first glance, could have even greater negative consequences for the Class of 2009, according to a new report published by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

NACE’s Fall 2009 Salary Survey report shows that Class of 2009 bachelor’s degree graduates earned an average starting salary offer of $48,633—1.2 percent below the average $49,224 their Class of 2008 counterparts received. The decline seems small when considered in light of the changes that occurred in the economy, especially when more than half of all disciplines that experienced a change in salary saw those salaries increase. But a deeper look at salaries shows there have been considerable consequences for the Class of 2009.

“Year-over-year salary increases are what have come to be considered ‘the norm,’” said NACE Executive Director Marilyn Mackes, in a statement about the study findings. “[So] the small decrease actually reflects a much greater loss.”

For example, the Class of 2008 saw its average starting salary increase 7.6 percent over the average offer to Class of 2007 grads, according to NACE data. Moreover, 94 percent of the disciplines comprising the Class of 2008 that experienced a change in salary saw salary increases.

The decline in salary for the Class of 2009 graduates reflects the drop in demand for new graduates, as does the decline in the number of offers reported.

“There are 20 percent fewer offers reported in the September 2009 salary survey than were reported in the September 2008 report despite the fact that nearly the same number of schools reported offers for both reports,” said Mackes.

The results confirm an earlier study by NACE that found that less than 20 percent of the graduating class of 2009 had a job at the time of graduation.

Comparisons by Field of Study

Not surprisingly given their relatively short supply, engineering and computer science graduates saw their average salary offers increase, while the plentiful supply of graduates in business and liberal arts disciplines helped average offers fall for these workplace entrants. The drop was less than 1 percent, however, suggesting that employers chose to maintain salary levels even as they trimmed their hiring plans.

The overall average salary offer to business majors as a group fell by a mere one-tenth of 1 percent, with nearly an even split of increases and decreases posted by each of the individual disciplines. Accounting, marketing and finance majors realized increases, but business administration/management, management/information systems and economics graduates saw their average offers fall.

The average salary offer to accounting graduates crept up by less than 1 percent to $48,471; the overall average salary offer to marketing graduates was up 1.8 percent to $42,260. Finance majors posted a 2.1 percent increase to their average salary offer, bringing it to $49,163.

But average offers to business administration/management graduates fall 3.4 percent to $44,607. Similarly, the average offer to economics graduates fell 2.8 percent to $49,628. The average offer to management/information systems graduates also dipped by 1.8 percent to $50,573.

In the technical fields, graduates earning degrees in computer science saw their average offer rise just 0.6 percent to $61,467, and information sciences and systems graduates saw a 1.1 percent increase for an average offer of $52,886.

Compared to many of their peers in other disciplines, engineering graduates fared well. As a group, engineering grads saw their average offer rise 4.2 percent from $57,250 to $59,670.

By discipline, chemical engineering graduates saw their average offer increase 3 percent to $65,675; the average offer to mechanical engineers rose 3.9 percent to $59,222. Electrical engineering graduates posted a 5 percent increase to their average salary offer, which stands at $60,509.

All of these are considered healthy increases—unless compared to the jump in the average starting salaries for petroleum engineers, which rose a whopping 13 percent to $85,417. Driving up that average are offers ranging between $70,000 and $90,000 from petroleum and coal products manufacturers.

Average salary offers to liberal arts graduates held their ground, dropping just 0.3 percent from $36,715 to $36,624. Overall, liberal arts graduates were most likely to be offered teaching positions, which were among the top jobs for 2009 graduates.

By discipline in the liberal arts, there is a mix: English majors saw a 3.2 percent increase to their average salary offer, which stands at $36,604. Political science and government majors saw a similar increase; their average offer rose 3 percent to $40,009. The average salary offer for psychology majors, up 1.4 percent, stands at $34,573.

The average offer for history majors is $38,445, just 1 percent over the 2008 average. However, the average offer to sociology grads fell 3.2 percent to $34,290. The average offer to visual and performing arts graduates also dropped 2.7 percent to $34,114.

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