Curious Capitalist

Forget Unemployment, Time to Worry About ‘Mal-Employment’

Nearly 4 out of 10 young people are now underemployed

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Ed Jones / AFP / Getty Images

English majors of the world beware — your degree may not be worth the money you put into it, unless you go on to get a graduate qualification. I’ve been spending a lot of time recently thinking about education and the skills gap in the U.S. Some academics, like Harvard’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter, think the mismatch between the skills that are needed in today’s workforce and the skills kids graduate with is responsible for as much as a third of the growth in unemployment since the Great Recession. There’s also a vigorous debate going on about whether we should be pushing liberal-arts degrees in a world in which the majority of new jobs are going to require science, technology and math skills.

So I was interested when I stumbled on a study by a pair of Drexel University academics in the Continuing Higher Education Review that looks at this question. The results are sobering for liberal-arts types. While college graduates as a group did much better during the financial crisis and recession than those with only a high school degree (who suffered double-digit declines in employment), even young college grads are suffering from high rates of what’s called “mal-employment” — meaning, they are doing things that are much more menial than what their education trained them to do. Political scientists are working as bartenders, and English graduates are doing time as retail clerks. Channel one of the plotlines from Girls, and you’ve got the idea. From 2000 to 2010, mal-employment rose by 9.3 percentage points for college graduates between the ages of 20 and 24. Nearly 4 out of 10 young people in that group are now underemployed, and humanities and liberal-arts graduates fared the worst as a group.

It’s a problem with a big economic impact. Mal-employed college grads earn half of what their degree-appropriately employed peers do, a difference that adds up to tens of thousands of dollars per year, and millions over a lifetime. Does this make me think that my English degree wasn’t worth it? No, in part because the downwardly mobile trend is so much more pronounced for today’s graduates than those of the past. And, the study can’t capture the soft skills and creativity that liberal-arts education imparts, something I hear employers in the U.S. and abroad clamoring for. But it does make me think that unless you are a sharp kid, at a top school, you need to think long and hard about shelling out $100,000 for a degree that may net you a yearly salary of $33,265 (the average for an underemployed humanities grad). Either that, or make sure you learn some IT skills at the same time.