Connect with us


‘I don’t know what my next steps are:’ College grads facing tough job market, underemployment



Madison Gladney loves the work she does with AmeriCorps in Detroit trying to reduce flooding on the city’s east side.

“I love everything about it … but I’d like to be paid a little more,” said the recent Michigan State graduate with a degree in public policy.

She hoped to be working full time after graduation. Instead, she’s making about $1,200 a month in a 10-month fellowship that may or may not lead to full-time employment.

Gladney, 23, is one of many college graduates or nearly graduated seniors facing increasing difficulty in finding a job in their degree field.

It’s what experts deem underemployment, where grads can’t find work in the fields they studied for and resort to taking positions — be it fast food or other lower paying jobs — “that do not require a degree or make meaningful use of college-level skills,” according to a national report released in February.

While the problem isn’t new, it is growing locally and nationally. More than half of U.S. college graduates a year after obtaining their degree are underemployed, and it’s only slightly better in Michigan, where 45% are considered underemployed, despite record low unemployment in Michigan and other states.

While humanities and cultural degree programs like art and linguistics have traditionally been fields in which graduates struggle to earn a living wage, the problem varies widely across occupations. Health fields, such as nursing, and engineering, have some of the lowest underemployment, with nearly 75% or more of graduates finding high-paying jobs in their fields. By comparison, some of the highest underemployment is for degree holders not just with humanities degrees such as communications and journalism, but also the recreation and security fields.

The problem is fueled by a variety of factors, including students who don’t seek out internships, either by choice or because they can’t afford to, an unwillingness to relocate to states where jobs are and one larger problem: degrees alone, without other skills or preparation, aren’t necessarily enough to guarantee a job anymore, said Carrie Rosingana, the CEO of Capital Area Michigan Works!.

The result is stark in annual wages. On average, graduates who are successful finding a job in their field make about $60,000 a year to start. Those who don’t and are deemed underemployed make about $20,000 less a year, and their wages are closer to those of a high school graduate rather than someone with a bachelor’s degree.

Gladney lives with her family because she can’t afford to rent an apartment or buy a home, and that isn’t likely to change soon.

“Luckily, I had a place to go home to (after graduating),” she said. “I know some people don’t.”

Madi Davis expects to graduate in April from MSU with a degree in statistics. Despite choosing one of the fields with lower underemployment nationally — nearly two-thirds of math and statistics grads find jobs in their degree fields — she’s concerned she’ll have to take a job waiting tables or in retail this summer.

The 21-year-old thought her career choice would make finding a well-paying job a certainty. But because she had to work through the summers, she never had time for an internship, which experts said is crucial to getting a job out of school.

Where the jobs are in the Lansing area

College degrees are still highly sought after in the United States, and jobs that pay better wages typically require one. In the Lansing area, there’s as much as a $30-an-hour difference between workers with a college degree and those with just a high school diploma, according to data collected by Lansing Economic Area Partnership.

“There are fewer opportunities for people who don’t have bachelor’s degrees,” said Keith Lambert, the chief operating officer for LEAP.

But some college graduates don’t land high-paying jobs right out of school. The Burning Glass Institute and Strada Institute for the Future of Work investigated how college graduates are employed in their February report.

The trend of more than half of graduates being underemployed in the U.S. is concerning, the report said, because those workers typically only make 25% more than those with a high school diploma. In comparison, a recent graduate employed in a job that requires a college degree typically earns about 88% more, according to data from the report.

That’s taking into consideration that recent graduates will typically earn less than people with years of experience in their field.

Data from LEAP for the first-quarter job market in the Lansing area (Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties) show that the most-sought-after job is registered nurses. From March 2023 to March 2024, 1,450 unique positions were advertised on job searching sites in the area.

The second-most posted job is for sales supervisors, with 580 unique listings over the past year. A graduate who took such a job would be considered underemployed, according to the report, because those jobs typically don’t require a bachelor’s degree. 

Gladney didn’t expect to have difficulty finding a job in her field. Her degree in social relations and policy is through MSU’s James Madison College, and both JMC and MSU tout their extensive alumni network as something that can help recent grads get jobs.

Gladney said that wasn’t the case for her.

“Finding a job wasn’t as easy as people made it out to be,” she said.

Underemployment is having a wide impact on MSU graduates. Over half of last year’s MSU grads are enrolled in a master’s program, or are planning on it, according to data from the MSU Career Services Network. The Career Services Network helps current and graduating students get jobs, and tracks the roles alumni take after graduating through surveys.

Gladney has considered graduate school as a potential solution. One of the benefits of working with AmeriCorps is she will receive $7,000 to $8,000 toward grad school upon completing her 10 months with the program.

‘I must have submitted 200 applications’

Olivia Murray, an MSU student graduating in April, is anxiously looking for her first job.

“I feel like I did everything right, like I did all the steps you’re supposed to,” Murray said. “I’m on version 10 of my resume, I’ve met with career services, I’ve had internships…”

Murray will graduate with a degree in interpersonal communications and wants to go into corporate event planning. She’s had an internship with the Detroit Lions and currently works for the Career Services Network at MSU.

Lambert said it’s not surprising that Murray is having difficulty, as grads in humanities fields, such as communications, often struggle to find a job, even though the degree encompasses a wide variety of skill sets.

“Employers get what ‘engineering’ or ‘nursing’ is,” Lambert said. “The skill is in the name, but with communications it’s a lot more vague as to what exactly that means and how the person would fit in the role.”

Lambert said degrees in STEM fields, or science, technology, engineering and math, have a “hard sell” associated with them that can help match employers with potential employees more easily.

“I don’t know why more employers aren’t more interested in communications majors. … They have such a wide skill set that employers are looking for, like critical thinking and writing skills. They just might not know because that’s not right in the name (of the degree),” Lambert said.

Lambert, who graduated from MSU with degrees in international relations and economics, said it’s unfair, but understandable.

“There’s so much competition for these jobs, an employer might not follow up with someone whose resume just says ‘communications,’” he said. “Adding in the use of (artificial intelligence) to do a keyword search on the resumes, a person might never even see your resume to ask questions.”

Not being able to speak to a real person is one of the most frustrating parts of the job search for Davis, who said she’s sent in around 200 applications.

“I’m either not hearing back for weeks or months, or I get an auto-generated email saying ‘not at this time,'” Davis said.

Davis’ lease is up July 1, and as that day gets closer she feels more anxiety. She needs a job to have the income to apply for and rent another apartment.

“I can’t really go back home,” she said. “If I still don’t have a job by this summer, I’ll find a serving job or something, but I really don’t want to do that. I’m an adult… I want an adult job.”

What can be done?

A college degree is still worth completing, the report from The Burning Glass and Strada institutes found, and experts agree. It’s just no longer a guarantee, especially in a labor market that values some degrees over others.

The report said graduates would have more success finding high-paying jobs if employment outcome by college and degree program was more easily obtainable and transparent, colleges did more job-coaching and students had equal access to programs that lead to well-compensated employment and at least one paid internship.

Rosingana, of Capital Area Michigan Works!, said emphasizing their skill set might help graduates stand out while job searching.

Graduates relying on just their degree to get jobs aren’t going to have the same success as someone who emphasizes the skills their time in college honed and the experiences they’ve had outside of school, she said.

“We’re even seeing employers are now leading by saying what skills they want before they go into what degree they want (a candidate to have),” Rosingana said.

That approach can help job seekers identify what other positions they could pursue if their preferred role isn’t necessarily hiring at that moment.

“If you really think about all those skills that you’ve learned when you’re in college and those different classes and how they connect to a variety of different industries, I would say be open to exploring where those transferable skills that you built can really come into play across a variety of different jobs,” Rosingana said.

Rosingana also suggested job seekers be open to “externships,” or internships after graduating from college to build their resumes and be open to jobs that pay less.

“We do know that sometimes college graduates have that education, and they also need to get that real world experience,” Rosingana said. “So sometimes it’s looking for those opportunities, maybe to step into an entry level position, and to have the opportunity to grow with an organization and have that upward mobility.”

She encourages job seekers to not see any job as a destination, but instead consider what skills they can develop for a future job.

Karin Hanson, director of employer relations and communications for MSU’s Career Service Network, said some things are out of the control of students.

“The market may be softening,” Hanson said. “Last year, we saw a lot of hiring, and this year we’ve gotten the sense that employers are scaling back.”

Hanson also said schools could be doing more.

“I almost feel like there should be a fifth year for those who want one, like a year where we can help (the students) transition to the workforce,” Hanson said.

Lambert is among many businesses leaders who advocate for graduates to remain in Michigan, in part to stem the state’s population slide. He said employers must be proactive in seeking out potential employees with as much effort as those searching are expected to put in.

“The more connections businesses, especially small, local businesses, can make with our colleges and universities, the better,” he said. “There’s so many local opportunities, but they might not be getting their names out there as much as the bigger companies.”

Lambert said college students need to think ahead to increase their chances of getting the jobs they want right out of school, and avoid low-paying jobs they aren’t happy with.

“I’ll be honest — I didn’t do that,” he said. “And I struggled for a second. It’s just not what college students are thinking about.”

Gladney didn’t start college with a future career in mind, and didn’t land firmly on one until well into her time at MSU. She said it might have made it easier for her if she had had a plan her freshman year.

Murray, though, said she’d always known what she wanted to do, and even though she feels like she’d done everything right, she feels like it didn’t matter. She’s still trying to stay positive about her future, though.

“My friends and family are very supportive,” she said. “I’m a pretty optimistic person, and I know it’s not just me having this problem.”

Murray and Davis share frustrations with how difficult it is to find a position where they make a decent amount of money and like what they do.

“It’s really frustrating,” Davis said. “I don’t know what my next steps are.”

Contact Sarah Atwood at Follow her on X @sarahmatwood.

Continue Reading