Job prospects for the spring 2017 undergraduate degree recipients look brighter than previous years, according to national and local sources.
Eight out of 10 employers describe the college labor market as good to excellent, according to an annual survey by the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. Nearly 90% of the 4,300 companies surveyed hired new graduates in 2016 and plan to do the same this year.
A separate survey of employers deemed by CollegeGrad.com as the top hirers for entry-level jobs shows they will increase hiring this year by 8.5%, and the New York Federal Reserve reported in December the unemployment rate for recent college graduates fell to 3.9%.
“Of all the years in the recent past, 2017 is one of the best years for college graduates in Arkansas,” said Mervin Jebaraj, interim director for the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas. “The labor market is in general is really tight. Graduates should have the ability to find a job they want.”
In fact, Arkansas is one of four states to show record-low unemployment rates for March. Its rate was 3.6%, compared to the national average of 4.5%, according to the Department of Workforce Services.
“By that indicator, the economy and the labor market are doing well,” said Michael Pakko, chief economist and state economic forecaster at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Institute for Economic Advancement.
However, the unemployment rate doesn’t take into consideration those who have dropped out of the labor force who normally wouldn’t, following the Great Recession, Pakko said. At 55.7%, the employment-population ratio for March 2017 has not reached pre-recession levels, but it has for the most part since 2014 been on a steady rise, according to Bureau of Labor Services data provided by the IEA.
“So far, 2017 is shaping up to look a pretty good year for job growth,” Pakko said.
‘HOT FIELDS’ FOR JOBS
Some career prospects are better than others, though, said Gregory Hamilton, director of economic research and statistical analysis within the IEA. He pointed to health care, engineering and technology careers like those in management information systems and software development as “hot fields.”
“Sitting here at the university in Little Rock, watching people come and go, those people in the more technical fields seem to be the people who are going. Liberal arts are having a harder time,” Hamilton said.
Pakko and Jebaraj each agreed, and they each added education to the list of expanding careers. Registered nurses, software developers and general operations managers are among the jobs listed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as those projected to grow the most nationwide between 2014 and 2024.
In Arkansas, the average salary for a registered nurse is $57,630. Average salary for general managers is $84,770 and for software engineers is $86,890. Accountants and nursing assistants also were projected by BLS to show the significant growth. Accountants make about $65,740 in Arkansas, and nursing assistants make $22,760. The rest of the jobs (60% of the list) projected for growth during the 10-year period do not require formal education past high school.
WAGES CREEP UP
College education costs are higher than ever, and 57% of college graduates in Arkansas carry student loan debt at an average of $26,082 per individual, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.
Average salaries for graduates generally have not kept up with education costs in recent years, but the state is starting to see wage growth, Jebaraj said.
“Compared to the last decade or so, when wages have essentially been flat, we are finally seeing modest increases in wages. So even recent graduates should expect to see offers that are more competitive that previous graduating classes,” he said.
A four-year degree from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville comes with a price tag of $56,572, and graduates have an average salary of $43,400, according to the College Scorecard on the U.S. Department of Education website. Four years at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock runs about $54,476, and graduates earn $33,900 afterward, according to the DOE website.
The average cost for four years at a public college or university in Arkansas is $42,593, and the average salary after attending is $33,630, according to calculations made from DOE data. Four years at one of the major private universities in Arkansas runs about $85,665, on average, and graduates make $40,650, on average.
Two years at NorthWest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville costs $12,948, and the DOE College Scorecard shows graduates make an average of $32,300 annually. Two years at University of Arkansas Pulaski Technical College in Little Rock costs $19,294, with an average salary of $27,900 for former attendees.
Pakko said while college graduates in some specialties fair better than others, in general, a college education continues to be a key factor in terms of employability and earning potential.
“Even if you can’t find a job specifically in your degree field of, for example, English literature, having that education is seen by employers as a positive signal of ability and diligence, as it always has been,” Pakko said. “If you have some technical skills ranging from health care to a broad range of professional services, that’s a bonus. But, generally speaking, prospects are pretty good.”