Ericka Seastrand graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in consumer science. She beat the pavement for nine months, and the only job she could get was retail sales associate at a mall.
“The market was really competitive,” the 26-year-old from West Milwaukee recalled last week. “My degree was a generic business degree – nothing technical or tangible in the skill set. So I decided to get another degree with a hard skill set.”
Seastrand is one of a surprising number of 20-somethings who graduated from college in recent years, couldn’t find good-paying jobs with their four-year degrees, and enrolled in a technical college to earn a second degree or diploma geared toward specific job opportunities.
In the last three years, 6.4% of the total number of degrees and diplomas awarded at Waukesha County Technical College went to 20-somethings who self-reported they had at least 16 years of education before enrolling at the technical college, according to data analysis requested by the Journal Sentinel. Twenty-somethings represented 79.5% of all WCTC’s grads from 2009 to 2011 who already had bachelor’s degrees.
The percentages of 20-somethings with bachelor’s degrees who graduated during the same time from other technical colleges in the state – Madison (5.5%), Milwaukee (2.9%), Moraine Park (2.3%) and Gateway (2.1%) – were lower, but still noteworthy.
Connecting college degrees with jobs is a high-stakes challenge as graduates compete for fewer jobs while facing the prospect of repaying hefty student loans because financially strapped parents couldn’t help pay for college, and tuition at four-year universities has risen faster than the rate of inflation.
The Legislature, starting next year, will require the University of Wisconsin System to report job placement for its grads as part of new accountability measures.
Those who are strategic from the start of college – networking through campus activities, tapping career counseling services early and gaining practical experience through undergraduate research, volunteer work or internships – have always been the most successful at landing jobs right away, college officials agree.
But those who aren’t as purposeful in their pursuit of a career have an increasingly difficult time in this economy, though college grads overall still fare much better than those without a degree. The government reported the April unemployment rate for college grads was 4%, compared with 7.9% for high school grads.
After finishing an associate degree in graphic design with an emphasis on Web design at Madison Area Technical College last December, Seastrand, of West Milwaukee, quickly landed a job at Pilch and Barnet in Madison.
Hers is a cautionary tale.
She didn’t use UW-Madison’s career counseling services beyond seminars on résumé writing and interview skills during her four years there. She also didn’t realize the value of networking early enough. She did have opportunities to do unpaid internships, but could not afford to take them because she needed a paying job, she said.
A paid internship gained through Madison Area Technical College helped Seastrand land her Web design job at Pilch and Barnet.
Now paying off more than $50,000 in student loan debt, Seastrand’s advice to graduating high school students is to be strategic about college:
“Get connected in the community and really understand what you want to do, then pursue it. I didn’t have a clear idea of what my future job would entail, so I could have the network and make myself more competitive,” she said.
A tech degree has made her more competitive, she said, “though I gained a lot of experience from my four-year degree that I think will pay off in the long run.”
Competitive job market
Companies can be very specific about what skills they want in prospective employees because they’re flooded with applicants in a tight economy, said Alfonso Studesville, a career counselor at Madison Area Technical College for the past 18 years.
“A technical college minimizes the academic and focuses more on hands-on skills and applications for a particular field,” he said. “We have a lot of students who want to get going quickly with a career. It’s an employer’s market; they have so many applicants with specific experience to pick from.”
UW-Madison frames a college education around critical skills and competencies “rather than knowledge of a subject,” said Wren Singer, director of the university’s Center for the First-Year Experience, which helps freshmen get off to a good start in college.
“Students are going to end up doing five to six different jobs in their career,” Wren said. “National research shows employers want problem-solving skills, critical thinking and the ability to get along with people. Majors in any number of areas can teach that.”
UW-Madison is starting earlier to impress upon college students the need to be strategic about networking and gaining experience through internships, volunteering in their field, and undergraduate research opportunities, Singer said.
She’s concerned that more students are choosing professional programs because of their direct links to jobs.
“I don’t know if they’re making the right choice, because they may not be happy if they haven’t really explored,” Singer said. “We want them to expand their thinking that you’re not preparing for the first job, but for the long run. . . . An education is intended to prepare them for the second job, the third job, being a citizen in the world and being part of a democracy.”
Today’s students aren’t that much different from generations before them, said Mark Nook, senior vice president for academic affairs for the University of Wisconsin System.
“They know there’s a value to their education,” Nook said. “But a bigger portion wants a job at the end and isn’t looking for an education, where – when I was a student – we knew if we got an education, we’d find jobs. There are more students coming for very specific reasons and really wanting that job waiting for them.”
Degree but no job
Jake Staral, 23, graduated in December 2010 from UW-Madison with a degree in biology, spent about six months applying for jobs, and enrolled in Moraine Park Technical College’s water quality technology program on the advice of a family friend.
A first-generation college student, Staral said he had to figure out a lot for himself.
“I thought it would be easy to get a job that paid $30,000 to $40,000 a year, so I was a little bewildered after I graduated,” he said. “But I know the four-year degree will help me, along with the hands-on experience I’m gaining at Moraine Park.”
Staral plans to graduate from Moraine Park next year. He wishes he had taken advantage of advising services at UW-Madison.
That’s a step in the right direction, according to Katee Longmore, 26, who graduated from UW-Milwaukee in December 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in architectural studies.
Last weekend, Longmore graduated from Milwaukee Area Technical College with a second degree – an associate degree in landscape horticulture. She has a job at Kelly’s Greenscapes in Sussex.
She has no regrets about first earning a bachelor’s degree.
“These two degrees together are getting me where I need to be,” Longmore said. She wishes she had gotten involved with student organizations, and gained experience through internships before finishing a degree she wasn’t sure she wanted, she added.
Megan Gardner, 27, graduated from UW-Whitewater in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design and a minor in marketing.
She worked for four years as a marketing assistant at a local lighting manufacturer before it went out of business in May 2011.
“I knew it would be hard to find another job because of the economy, and I was scared I could lose my job again if I found one, so I decided I needed a career with more stability,” Gardner said.
Her parents own a dental lab in Waukesha, and suggested she think about becoming a dental technician.
Gardner graduated from MATC’s dental technician technical diploma program a week ago, and works at the family dental lab.
“I’m still interested in marketing and graphic design, but I really like being a dental technician,” she said.
“I have no regrets about my four-year degree, because I have a well-rounded education.”