Lens on Learners – Employability Outcomes of Recent College Graduates

So far in our Lens on Learners series, we have looked at lifelong learners, those who are unemployed and underemployed, and those still in grades K-12 (or their country equivalent of elementary and high school). However, we haven’t as yet addressed one group, one that we still need to talk about – those learners who are recent college graduates. These learners currently face the question “What now?” Let’s dive in and see…

There are three aspects to any solution of the oft-discussed skills gap:

Learners are faced with several options depending on their degree field, level, and their desired outcomes. While the most common question for high-school graduates may be “Is college worth it?” For the recent college grad, the question is instead, “Do I need more education or should I go out and get some experience?”

To lend some hard stats to the above, we’re currently conducting a survey of college graduates about their employability outcomes. (Side note: the survey is still open, and in the interest of gathering more data, we’d love for you to share this link with any recent college graduates in your network.) Included herein are some of the results to date, and some observations on how they align with what other studies show.

Field of Study and Career Choices

According to our study, in those who are 5 years or less away from their most recent education, over 82% have worked or are working in a career field related to their field of study. However, in those who are more than five years away, the numbers drop to just over 78%. This is supported by other surveys as well.

What does this mean? The further a learner is from graduation, the less likely they are to stay in their field of study, but perhaps more telling is that around 17% never go into that field of study at all, and for a variety of reasons.

In fact, when we asked our respondents why they were not employed in their field of study, again, the answers differed greatly the further learners were from graduation. In those less than five years from graduation, a full third could not find full employment in their field. Of course, COVID may be a factor in some of these results, but nearly a quarter simply took whatever work they could find. The remaining group, just over 40% were split between personal reasons and finding passion in a different kind of work.

However, for those more than five years from graduation, nearly 45% told us they took whatever work they could find. Just over 30% found passion in an unrelated field (More on this in a moment).

In fact, even though they are working in their field of study, many graduates feel underemployed anyway. When asked if they are working at the level they expected in their field of study, just over 70% of those less than five years from graduation said yes. For those greater than five years from graduation, only just over 60% said yes.

Of those who are not working in their field of study, the differences are even greater. Of those less than five years from graduation, over 50% are working in a closely related or at least related field. They may be using that job as a “stepping stone” to get into the career field they studied for, or they may have simply leveraged their degree to get a related position that may have been their target all along. The remaining 46% are working in a completely unrelated field.

However, when we look at those more than five years from graduation, nearly 74% are working in a career completely unrelated to their field of study. This again illustrates that the further a learner gets from graduation, the more likely it becomes that they have deviated from their original path.

All of this data aligns with the recent global study from Microsoft that shows as we emerge from COVID and return to “precedented times”, 41% of those surveyed plan to change jobs in the next year. Of those, a full 46% intend to change to an entirely different career.

When this is the world of employment learners who are newly emerging from college and others face, the question becomes: When you pivot? When do you need to go back to school? Our survey respondents gave us their thoughts.

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Is More Education the Answer?

For those newer college graduates, 58% felt they needed more education to progress in their career. In those over five years from graduation, that number fell to 30%. What’s the big difference?

Well, when we combine our data with data from other sources, we see that one reason recent graduates are not employed fully is that they choose to go back to school pretty quickly. In fact, HESA data from the UK reveals that 17% of recent graduates engaged in either further study while currently employed or full-time further study. This statistic drops off with age and time. The older a person is, and the further they are from graduation, the less likely they are to go back to school. We explored this a bit in our earlier article on lifelong learners.

What kind of education will they seek? Just over 43% of our respondents would choose the next level of formal education, and the remainder are split between micro-credentials and industry certifications, with few interested in trade or vocational school at all.

In this case, the same numbers hold true for those who have graduated more than five years ago. While they may go back to school less often, they are still exploring the same options with nearly the same frequency.

So what does all this mean when it comes to our Lens on Recent College Graduates? Let’s take a deeper look at what we know – and perhaps just as importantly – what we don’t know.

Choices, Choices Everywhere!

As we’ve moved through this series, we have looked at choices and how where the learner is in life largely determines the choices they can make. For example, those who are unemployed and need reskilling immediately are more likely to choose industry or micro-courses because of two factors – time and money. They have an urgent need to return to the workforce because they typically have adult-level responsibilities.

Those who are underemployed or looking to change careers also choose shorter, more compact courses due to time constraints, although more of them might choose to go back for an advanced degree, even part time. This is because they don’t have an urgent need – instead it is either a want, or a need they see coming down the road, but something they have the luxury of time to remedy. However, these learners are still looking at the return on their investment. What will the education they receive actually do for them? Will it help them accomplish their goals?

When we looked at K-12 learners, we saw that many of their choices are made for them. Students crave opportunities, educators want to provide them, but funding and established frameworks make it difficult to offer the same opportunity to every learner in that space. However, given the right tools, when they graduate from high school, more options are open to them, including trade schools, community colleges, and even industry training.

For recent college graduates, their choices are very similar – with some additional choices. They may be able to get a job in their chosen field of study, but the entry level position may be less than what they expected or wanted to get after graduation. For many, there is no urgency to enter the workforce right away, and further education is still fairly feasible for them. Returning to school before they marry, start a family, buy a home, and all of the other things that tend to happen post-college is an easier choice for them.

Of course, this assumption is qualified by another assumption, that we are talking about recent college graduates who went to school soon after their secondary education ended. For non-traditional learners who are recent graduates, their lives may already be complex both financially and personally.

But what do we know from our data and other sources?  First, everyone’s educational journey is different. There is no “one-size-fits-all” formula. However, statistics tell us some important things:

  • The closer to their most recent graduation a learner is, the more likely they are to seek additional education.
  • While the next level of formal education is still the most popular choice for recent college grads, industry training and micro-courses are rising in popularity as options, likely because there are more options available than there ever have been.
  • The closer they are to a recent graduation, the more likely a learner is to be working in their latest field of study or a related field. The further the learner is from graduation, the more likely they are to switch jobs and even careers.

As we said, these are highly individualised outcomes. What may be just as important is what we don’t, and in some cases, can’t know.

  • We don’t know the future impact of COVID-19 on the plans of current college students. The job market has changed significantly, and we need more data to understand how that will impact learner choices.
  • We don’t know what the impact of greater awareness of micro-courses and industry certification will accomplish. Many of our survey respondents (just over 60%) were not aware of digital badges and had no idea how to use them to benefit their career.
  • We don’t know what impact the current trend in industry education and certification will have on higher education, as many employers waive or eliminate degree requirements.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Well, recent college graduates and the graduates of tomorrow will face a different workplace than perhaps we have ever seen, with remote and hybrid work taking centre stage, skills trumping knowledge, and more. Will micro-courses stacked properly replace a college degree? Will digital badges become the norm? What new education frameworks will emerge in the next decade?

We don’t know. But there are a couple things we would like. First, we would love more data and more responses to our survey. We want to see if the data we have gathered so far holds true with a larger audience. (Here’s that link again, and we would love it if you could share it with recent graduates in your network.)

Second, we would love to hear from you! What do you think? The more people who join this conversation, the more adept we can become at turning the Lens on Learners, the more meaningful our efforts will become. Together, we can make a difference to learners at all stages.

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Credentialate assesses, monitors, promotes and validates learners’ attainment of evidence-backed skills, supporting the transition from learner to earner. It is a secure, configurable platform that assesses and tracks attainment of competencies and issues micro-credentials in a digital badge to students.

If you’d like to learn more about Credentialate, we invite you to Learn More or Schedule a Demo.

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