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Major downer: Some college majors associated with higher unemployment, study finds

College majors and unemployment

A tough economy doesn't hit all workers equally hard. In this most recent recession, the least educated suffered the most, while others weathered the storm armed with a high-value college degree. How well college students fare in a tight job market depends in part on their college majors, but also on how well they connect the dots between their education and job requirements while still in school.

These are the conclusions of a recent report out of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. The report breaks down the economic prospects for college students by major. What you choose to major in, it turns out, has something to do with your prospects in a tight job market. What truly turns the odds in your favor, however, is earning a college degree of any type.

Counting on a college degree

According to the report, "Hard Times: Not all college majors are created equal," a college degree is well worth the investment. An estimated 8.9 percent of bachelor's degree graduates were unemployed, according to 2009-2010 data from the American Community Survey. But that figure is a stratospheric 22.9 percent for high school graduates on the job market. And nearly a third of high school dropouts -- 31.5 percent -- are without work in this economy. College-bound students sizing up rising tuition costs can safely conclude that the degree will enhance their employment prospects.

Does your college major matter?

The data clearly shows that having a degree matters, but does the major you select impact your odds of securing a job upon graduation? The authors of the report argue that "not all majors are created equal," and break down unemployment by major. Recent college graduates in technical majors like engineering (7.5 percent unemployment) and computer science (7.8) generally enjoy lower unemployment than the arts (11.1) and humanities and liberal arts (9.4). Applied majors like business (7.4) and health care (5.4) have sailed through the recession, while targeted majors in hard-hit industries -- architecture (13.9), for example -- are still reeling.

Here's a closer look at the best and worst majors for getting a job, according to "Hard Times":

Majors associated with the highest unemployment

Recent graduates in these majors suffered the lowest rate of success in the job market:

  1. Architecture, 13.9 percent. The implosion of the construction industry following the housing bust is likely to blame.
  2. Film, video and photographic arts, 12.9 percent. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates keen competition in this field, which for many is a labor of love. Computer skills give film and video artists a boost in the job market.
  3. Fine arts, 12.6 percent. Fine artists depend on disposable income, which becomes scarcer in a recession.
  4. Commercial art and graphic design, 11.8 percent. The BLS reports a glut of commercial artists. Designers with Web and animation skills or a management background should beat the odds.
  5. Information systems, 11.7 percent. The market currently favors people who invent technology over people who use it, the report observes. Computer science majors enjoy a low 7.8 percent rate, by contrast.

Majors associated with the lowest unemployment

These recent graduates fared the best in 2009 and 2010, even in the midst of the recession:

  1. Nursing, 4 percent. Nursing will add 581,500 new jobs in the 2008-2018 period, the largest of any occupation, the BLS reports. An aging population and medical treatment advances are fueling the boom.
  2. Family and consumer sciences, 4.3 percent. Also known as home economics, this major is shielded from economic boom-and-bust cycles.
  3. Elementary education, 4.8 percent. Another recession-resistant career, teachers are always in demand.
  4. Social work, 6.6 percent. With jobs concentrated in the public and non-profit sector, social workers are among the majors shielded by recession through association with a stable industry sector.
  5. Chemistry, 6.6 percent. Some of the hottest R&D fields today -- biotech, materials science, environmental science -- employ chemists. The BLS reports that scientific consulting firms are a source of particularly strong employment.

Unemployment numbers like these serve as one measure of the health of an industry. College students weighing their options can look to these 2009-2010 results as a sign of what the average graduate in their field can expect in a tight economy.

Beyond the numbers

There are a number of caveats for students weighing the impact of this data, however:

  • Career preparation. There is likely to be a selection bias for employable majors, in that high-demand fields often attract the most career-savvy students. High-demand majors are also more selective from the outset, setting a higher bar for applicants.
  • Region. There are likely to be large variations in employment by region and, in some fields, by school.
  • Education and experience level. The numbers listed here also apply only to recent bachelor's degree graduates; the employment picture can change with experience and/or a graduate degree.
  • Economic fluctuation. These numbers reflect a unique and unusual moment in history following the 2008 global economic downturn and housing sector crash. Future graduates (particularly architects and civil engineering majors!) can expect a much different world.
  • Data spread. And finally, while the huge gap between high school and college graduate employment rates conveys a clear message, a variation of several percentage points does not. Your individual experience on the job market will be just that - individual - and may not follow the trends outlined by the data.

In general, employment data offers only a narrow glimpse at the employment picture. It's not enough to choose a high-demand or recession-proof major. Successful college graduates go the extra mile to become marketable in the job market. Employers look for leadership, project management skills and demonstrated quantitative skills, says Steve Langerud, director of professional opportunities at Depauw University.

"When these three skills are combined with the ability to think, speak and write, employers say they can teach the necessary skills specific to the job for which they are hiring. Especially marketable are candidates who bring all these things to the table *and* hard, industry specific skills developed either through internships or coursework," Langerud explains.

Choosing an employable major can give you a marginal boost in an uncertain economy, but what's more important is your completion of a college degree program and career-focused preparation along the way.