Just How Underemployed Is Gen Y?

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Gen Y is in a bind. This group of 18- to 29-year-olds has been told they must go to college in order to find a decent job. Yet upon graduating, few jobs are available to young people — and those that are open often don’t require a college degree.

Earlier this year, The Atlantic pointed to data indicating that 53% of recent college grads were either jobless or underemployed. Underemployment is of course better than unemployment, but many of the jobs new grads are taking don’t pay well enough to make much of a dent in student loan debt. The average college graduate owes roughly $25,000 in debt, and the total student loan debt is now greater than a trillion dollars.

Graduates are being forced in large numbers to take non-professional jobs until they can find ones tied to the career they’d been preparing for. A new study by my company, Millennial Branding, and the on-demand compensation data and software firm PayScale gives a good indication of how underemployed Gen Y truly is. We gathered information related to where Gen Y workers were most likely employed, what skills they were likely to have, where they aspire to work, what majors had the best (and worst) choice of jobs, and more.

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Here are the study’s major findings, which shed light on the state of today’s young workers:

They are graduating into poor-paying retail jobs. Our study found that over 63% of Gen Y workers have a bachelor’s degree, but the most commonly reported jobs for Gen Y don’t necessarily require a college degree. What’s ironic is that in order to compete for professional jobs in this economy, a B.A. is usually required, yet when everyone has one, it’s hard to stand out. The most common jobs for Gen Y workers include Merchandise Displayer, Clothing Sales Representative, and Cell Phone Sales Representative. You can bet that Gen Y would much rather have a professional job linked to their major than settle for a job at the mall that, in theory, a teenager could do.

They love working at technology companies. We found that the top-ranked companies for Gen Y are all tech companies that offer a high degree of job satisfaction, low job stress, high pay, flexibility, and meaningfulness of job. Qualcomm, Google and Medtronic were at the top of the list. Gen Y has not only demonstrated a propensity to use loads of technology as consumers, but young people today also like how tech companies treat their employees. Many of them offer telecommuting, they are fast paced, always innovating and allow them to work on meaningful projects that have an impact on society. High salaries don’t hurt either.

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They prefer working at small companies over larger ones. Millennials bristle in work atmospheres that are rigid and bureaucratic, which is how many big companies operate. Gen Y tends to be attracted to smaller companies because the environment is more flexible, and they are more likely to be given additional responsibilities and feel like they are part of something in high-growth mode. The highest concentration of Gen Y workers are at small companies with less than 100 employees (47%), followed by medium companies that have between 100 and no more than 1,500 employees (30%), and the fewest work in large companies with more than 1,500 employees (23%).

They are social media savvy.  To no surprise, Gen Y are masters of the social media universe. The most common Gen Y skills are focused on online marketing and social media, such as blogging, social media optimization and press releases. While most Gen Ys have profiles and are actively on social media, many don’t understand how to use the tools for business purposes. Despite this, they are very interested in working in social media for companies because they are passionate about the tools.

They are very entrepreneurial. Gen Y sees successful entrepreneurs, such as Mark Zuckerberg, and want to emulate their success. They see the best path to a successful career as starting a business that has a purpose. Relative to other generations, Gen Y is 1.82 times more likely to major in Entrepreneurial Studies, which was rarely ever offered as a major a few decades ago. More and more colleges are offering entrepreneurship classes in order to take advantage of Gen Y’s entrepreneurial ambitions.

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For the time being, however, when many of these entrepreneurial young people graduate, they are more likely to be collecting a meager hourly wage from behind a cash register than they are to be starting businesses.

Dan Schawbel is a Gen Y career expert and the founder of Millennial Branding. He speaks on the topic of personal branding, social media and Gen Y workforce management for companies such as Google, Time Warner, Symantec, CitiGroup and IBM. Subscribe to his updates at Facebook.com/DanSchawbel.