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Gen Z Is Starting To Graduate College This Year, With Lots Of Debt And Optimism

2017’s graduates might be hopeful for their futures, but they still face the wage gap and unemployment.

Gen Z Is Starting To Graduate College This Year, With Lots Of Debt And Optimism
[Photo: Flickr user Alan Light]

Job prospects are looking pretty good for graduates this year–the first cohort of gen Z to enter the workforce with a diploma or degree.

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According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), unemployment rates for high school and college graduates are closing in on prerecession levels. Wages are beginning a slow climb as well, particularly for those with a college degree. Among young college graduates, average wages are $19.18 per hour—only 1.4% higher than in 2000.

Challenges Everywhere

There are other less-than-rosy findings in the EPI’s report, even though 2007’s economy is a pretty low bar. Compared to the late ’90s and early 2000s, there are a high number of graduates who are unemployed and underemployed, or neither working nor in school. EPI’s report indicates that black and Hispanic graduates have higher unemployment rates than their white peers. Although the wage gap between men and women who have high school diplomas has closed some since 2000, female college graduates still face a wage gap directly out of school, at a time when their work experience is on par with their male counterparts. Women with college degrees are paid 86¢ for every dollar paid to men (compared with 92¢ in 2000).

Despite these realities, the graduates are optimistic. A new survey from talent acquisition platform iCIMS reveals that an overwhelming majority (91%) of the 400-plus college seniors surveyed think they can land the job they want with the skills they have, and on average, expect to earn in excess of $53,000 per year in their first jobs. (Female graduates are hedging their salary bets–while 62% of men surveyed expect to earn $50,000 or more, only 49% of women expect to earn that wage.) This uptick in wage expectations may be due to mounting student loans. Last year, the average student debt load was $37,172, according to analysis by higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz. This year’s is bound to be higher as tuition for both public and private colleges and universities continues to rise.

Misplaced Optimism

But graduates’ optimism may not be very realistic.

The iCIMS report also surveyed 400-plus recruiters, and less than a quarter of them said they paid entry-level employees over $50,000. The average salary they reported was just over $45,000. What’s more, the recruiters found that as in years past, new graduates didn’t have the skills they were looking for.

Ninety-eight percent of recruiters said they get resumes from applicants that are not qualified for the position. They’re lacking some basics. Sixty-two percent of recruiters surveyed said entry-level applicants could stand to improve their familiarity with the company and its industry before interviewing. As many as 35% of recruiters said the grads should have at least three internships in their work experience. More than 60% of recruiters are most interested in hiring college students with STEM majors, yet just 23% of college graduates in the class of 2017 will have STEM degrees.

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Wanted: Flexibility

Good thing this cohort is willing to be flexible. The iCIMS survey found that as many as 81% of survey respondents said they’d take a job outside their field of study. Accenture Strategy’s 2017 U.S. College Graduate Employment Study found out just how far they’d go to land a job. Surveying 1,000 students graduating from college in 2017 and 1,000 students who graduated the previous two years, Accenture found that 41% will be looking in a different city for a job, and 38% will be commuting farther and/or accepting the first offer they receive. If no offer comes, 71% reported that they’d consider taking an unpaid internship after graduating. More than half (58%) consider it acceptable to work on weekends or evenings.

Employers take heed

Despite the stereotype that young workers job hop, 62% said they expect to stay at their first job for at least three years. But gen Z workers expect employers to be flexible in exchange for loyalty. They want the company they work for to help them maintain work-life balance as well as provide training and mentoring in addition to meaningful, challenging work.

They realize a college education was just the launchpad and want their employers to help them further develop skills. Half of new grads rated communications skills as something that would make them attractive to potential employers and want to develop problem-solving and management skills. Employers should note, however, that 84% of new grads expect to receive formal, on-the-job training.

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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