MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. It's June, and that means that nearly two million new college graduates are starting the next phase of their lives. And among those who are searching for jobs, it turns out that they may have better odds of finding jobs this year than in the recent past. But it's still tough out there, especially for certain graduates, and we'll have more on that in a few minutes. But for young people, overall, there are still high levels of unemployment, and many graduates are being hired into positions that offer low wages and don't require college degrees. Joining us to talk about the good, the bad and the ugly news for the class of 2014 is Marilyn Geewax. She's a senior business edit - news editor at NPR. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us, once again.
MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.
MARTIN: So what's the big picture? What measure are analysts using to suggest that there is a brighter outlook this year?
GEEWAX: Well, there's an organization - the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Every spring, they do a survey to see how things are going, and this year it's showing that employers are expecting to hire nearly 9 percent more college graduates. And they're planning to pay them 1.2 percent more than they did last year. So that's - you know, that's the right direction. You want to see hiring up, and you want to see wages going up, and the overall economy seems to be stronger. The last three months we've had more than 200,000 new jobs for each month. We'll get a new report on Friday, but in general it's looking better. Let's just say if you had an older sibling who was class of 2009, you're lucky you're you this year, because it's better than it was a few years ago.
MARTIN: So what are the challenges that are still out there?
GEEWAX: The big problem for a lot of college graduates is not so much finding a job, but finding a job you actually want and that pays you something decent. The Labor Department says the unemployment rate for college graduates is about 3.3 percent. In other words, full employment - you can get a job if you're a college graduate. The problem is, when you look at the statistics, about four out of ten are in jobs that really don't require a college education. In other words, you graduate from college, and yes, someone wants to hire you. But you're working in a retail sales job at the mall. You're really not in the field that you wanted to be in.
MARTIN: And of course, that has implications for people who don't have college graduates, because people with those degrees are kind of crowding out people who, otherwise, would have those opportunities. Talk about another issue, if you would, that's been in the news a lot in recent years, which is the level of debt that college graduates bring with them to get that degree. Do we - what do we know?
GEEWAX: The Senate just had another hearing, this morning, about student debt. And, you know, the numbers there are terrible. There's about 1.2 trillion dollars in student debt, and that's spread over about 40 million people. The typical student debt is about 33,000 dollars this year, and that's a record. It's twice - even after you adjust for inflation, it's about twice what it was 20 years ago. So there are lots of people graduating who are getting jobs. Yes, it's good to be a college graduate, but the jobs are too often not in something that pays well, and the students are heavily burdened with debt.
MARTIN: Is there any advice that you feel comfortable giving to recent college graduates who are on the market and looking for those first opportunities?
GEEWAX: Well, I'm - I am certainly not - I want to be clear. I am not a guidance counselor. But I do look at data, and it's just overwhelmingly clear that the jobs that are really paying right now are all the jobs that I would find awful, but...
MARTIN: Like what?
GEEWAX: You know, computer science, engineering, accounting - the best job out there, the statistics show, is to be a petroleum engineer. Starting salaries - 22-year-olds coming out of college are being offered jobs at more than 95,000 dollars a year. So if you want to be a 23-year-old making in the six figures, be a petroleum engineer. But, you know, that's a very tough way to go. The jobs that tend to not pan out are those that are, like, media studies and psychology and arts. Those kinds of softer majors are still having pretty low salaries, and that's where the trouble really is. So that...
MARTIN: Meaning us.
GEEWAX: Looking at ourselves, yes. We are typical examples...
GEEWAX: ...Of what's a real problem. But, you know, there are more problems, though, that even if you have the kind of degrees that we have in journalism, the real problems for people are dithering. I mean, no matter what your major is - yes it's great to be a petroleum engineer, but if you're going to graduate in journalism, make sure you're doing it the right way. That is, do it in four years. Don't drag it out over six years. That's a real problem.
MARTIN: Why? Why? Because of the debt load...
GEEWAX: Because of the debt, yeah.
MARTIN: Because it tends to increase the debt, and then it becomes harder to...
GEEWAX: Harder and harder.
MARTIN: ...To pay off that debt and your options are limited and...
GEEWAX: And you're coming out of school, you're 24 - 25-years-old, and there are already people, you know, running up your back who are 22-years-old. And they'll, you know - it sort of looks better to an employer to see somebody who's been really aggressive about finishing school in four years. And the other thing that you really need to keep in mind is the value of internships. That, on the one hand, yeah, you want to graduate in four years, but you want to make sure that you've layered in, during those four years, ways to get your foot in the door. That's what the statistics really show, is that people who have managed to get some work experience and finish in a timely fashion, get good grades - those are the things that tend to help you get through school. You know, the problem, I think, is we all have a kind of an image of, college should be fun, you know. It's beer and football, and that's nice. We all did a little of that. But you also have to realize that going to college is a job that has to be taken seriously, or you end up with a - 33,000 dollars in debt, you're 25-years-old, you've changed majors three times. And those are the people that really end up having a lot of trouble in the job market.
MARTIN: Marilyn Geewax is a senior business news editor at NPR, with us once again in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thanks, Marilyn.
GEEWAX: Oh, you're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.