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Surplus of college graduates allows employers to require more of new hires

Debra Erdley
| Saturday, April 20, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Erika Wahl, 22, of Oakland poses in the Cathedral of Learning. Wahl, who graduates this year, will attend the University of Pittsburgh Law School next year.
Erika Wahl, 22, of Oakland poses in the Cathedral of Learning. Wahl, who graduates this year, will attend the University of Pittsburgh Law School next year.

Erika Wahl was thrilled to land a summer job as a file clerk with Gentile, Horoho & Availi, a Downtown law firm.

Wahl, 22, who is graduating this month from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in political science and communications and a minor in legal studies, is heading to Pitt's law school this fall, fully aware of a tight job market for attorneys, in part because of a glut of graduates and cutbacks in law firms.

“It's definitely something I considered, but this is something I've always wanted to do,” she said about getting a law degree. “It's scary, but I'm just going to cross that bridge when I come to it.”

When Wahl went looking for a summer job, she said she found that many firms already have upped the ante, requiring degrees or two to five years' experience even for file clerks. Graduates face new difficulties in a world where a surplus of college graduates has allowed employers to require college degrees of file clerks.

By the time commencement ceremonies wind down next month, about 1.7 million new college graduates will have degrees and head into what experts describe as a shifting job market. More than 15,000 of those are grads of Western Pennsylvania schools.

Although some degrees remain in demand, such as information technology, more employers find they can require degrees for administrative jobs where a high school diploma once sufficed.

“Some of those jobs have become a bit more complicated because after the downturn some jobs were consolidated. But I think it's more accurate to say that this is happening because there happens to be a larger group of college graduates out there,” said Andrew Sassaman, director of the Pittsburgh branch of Robert Half, an international employment agency.

Paul Harrington, director of Drexel University's Center for Labor Markets and Policy Studies in Philadelphia, said that trend coupled with what he calls “mal employment,” masks the struggles many new college graduates face.

He said mal employment — college graduates working in jobs that don't require a college degree, estimated to be as many as 40 percent in recent years — is troubling.

“All the economic gains associated with getting a college degree stem from getting a job in the college labor market. If you don't, there is virtually no payoff (in earnings),” Harrington said. “If you're an engineering major and you work for a financial institution as analyst, I'd call that college labor market. But if you had a biology major and you're a shoe salesman, I'd say you're not in the college labor market.”

The supply of new college graduates has grown much faster than anyone anticipated, from 1.23 million in 1999-2000 to 1.7 million this year.

Faced with a large supply, employers want the best talent they can get at the lowest possible price, said Phil Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University

“That means we really need to start expanding the job market. Then these new hires can move into more acceptable positions,” Gardner said, warning that long-term underemployment can result in potential going unrealized.

Gardner looks at the market from the perspective of an annual jobs survey the institute conducts. He said graduates with law degrees and MBAs likely will continue to find a tight job market.

Some aren't worried about a permanent place in the job market just yet.

“For now, I'm saving for graduate school,” said Liz Abeling, 22, a server at the Sharp Edge, Downtown, who got a degree in English writing at the University of Pittsburgh in December. “Eventually, I want to be a writing teacher, either high school or college level, and I know I'll have to go back to school for that.”

Abeling, who came to Pitt from Connecticut, said most of her friends and classmates at Pitt are optimistic about their job prospects.

Although unemployment in the region increased from 6.8 percent to 7.4 percent over the past year, their outlook isn't totally unfounded.

New college graduates are entering a much stronger market than those who graduated three years ago, Sassaman said.

“2008, 2009 and 2010 were very uncertain. But we've seen a consistent uptick in the Pittsburgh job market for the last three years,” he said.

Officials at Carnegie Mellon University's Office of Career and Professional Development said on-campus recruitment spiked dramatically in recent years.

“We found a 20 percent increase in the number of on-campus interviews from the 2009-10 academic year to the 2010-11 and a 71 percent increase in the number of on-campus interviews from 2010-11 to 2011-12,” CMU spokesman Kevin O'Connell said.

Greg Murphy, 29, of Greensburg, a former machinist who returned to school upon losing his job during the recession, is among those anxiously seeking a place in the recovering economy.

Murphy, who got a bachelor's degree in technical management and industrial technology before enrolling in a master's program in safety science engineering at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, will walk in commencement ceremonies in May, even though he won't finish his degree work until August.

He estimated he's answered 40 to 50 ads on LinkedIn and plans to step up his search as he completes his degree.

“I'm applying everywhere. I'm very hopeful,” he said.

Although some degrees don't carry much weight in the work force, such as education, Gardner said, degrees in computer science, information technology and engineering remain in demand.

Chris Martin, 22, who graduated in December from Pitt with a degree in information science and a minor in computer science, said he had “quite a few” responses when he put his resume on

“There were lots of hands-on positions that were interesting and quite a few job openings Downtown and elsewhere. But this was the best fit,” said Martin, who took a job at Pitt's School of Health Sciences where he is as a business analyst in its information science department.

Harrington said much of the uncertainty for new graduates can be traced to labor market contractions that happened when they were still in high school.

“We lost 8.7 million jobs between December 2007 and February 2010. As of January this year we had gained back 5.5 million,” he said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or

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