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High expectations, low confidence: College seniors on the post-grad job hunt

Impending doom or at-long-last freedom? Survey asks students about the world of work

SHARE High expectations, low confidence: College seniors on the post-grad job hunt

Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

For seniors about to graduate college with low confidence in the future and no job secured, there may be comfort in knowing you’re not the only one.

Quite the contrary, actually.

Of the 949 American college seniors surveyed by Quality Logo Products last month, 84% have no job locked down for post-graduation, while 69% are either somewhat or not-at-all confident about how prepared they are for their first job.

Other key findings from the survey include:

  • 68% of college seniors listed flexible hours as their top priority in a job.
  • 40% plan to begin their first job upon graduating.
  • 12% predict they will stay five or more years at their first job.

“I think ‘only 12% anticipate staying at their first job for five or more years’ is a very surprising statistic,” Sara Hornung, one of the lead researchers of the survey, told the Deseret News.

Unrealistic expectations

The world of work has changed considerably over the years.

“When I entered the workforce as a teacher in 2018, I was surrounded by teachers who were considered ‘veterans’ or ‘tenured’ and the cultural norm among educators was to pick one school and teach there until you retire,” Hornung said.

The up-and-coming culture of young professionals suggests “doing what makes you happy” and leaving your job if you are not, she said. “It shines a light at how young professionals are viewing their job experiences and what expectations they have as they enter the workforce.”

In the survey, 61% of students reported feeling it is important to have a positive work environment and to enjoy the work they do.

That doesn’t seem to be what’s happening, contrasting sharply with the picture painted by job search assistance website Zippia. As of 2023, its survey found that 61% of Americans want to leave their job. In that survey, only 20% are passionate about their current profession.

And expectations may not be realistic. The Quality Logo study said that “despite the national average starting salary for college graduates being $41,636, merely 18% of seniors expect to earn around that amount. Instead, 43% expect to earn a mid-level salary at the get-go of at least $60,000, with 1 in 5 seniors anticipating earning between $70,000 and $100,000 in their first job.”

The economy

Though many seniors believe they won’t stay at their first job past five years, 70% anticipate enjoying the occupation. But having a solid first job may be an opportunity that gradually becomes more rare and competitive in today’s economy. According to The Wall Street Journal, fresh college graduates are less likely to be hired in the country’s current economic state.

While companies used to make offers to graduates weeks after school began, the Journal reported college career offices said employers are now slow to approach graduating seniors.

CNBC News said earlier this year, “These young professionals will enter a job market that even the most seasoned experts can’t quite explain: prominent layoffs are in the news even as unemployment numbers remain historically low, and more than a year of recession warnings have yet to materialize while millions of jobs go unfilled.”

The Deseret News has previously reported on large companies experiencing massive employee layoffs, including Disney, Meta and Amazon. Reasons range from a decline in consumer demand to today's overall unpredictable economy.

In the new study, 54% of college seniors admitted to being concerned about affording rent and utilities once they graduate and enter the workforce.

Low confidence

“It’s clear that many college graduates are feeling shaky about their chosen career path and their life after graduation. Their future is full of intimidating unknowns like the economy, exorbitant rent prices, striking the perfect work-life balance and the ever-nagging question of if they will be able to find a job in their field at the salary they believe they deserve,” the study said.

When asked more about the low confidence college seniors have for their future, Hornung said, “I think colleges have a tendency to glamorize many professions.”

She said a student’s first impression when entering the workforce could come with “rose-colored glasses,” which may disappear when the reality of their profession sets in.

“I don’t think the professors are at fault, however, I think it’s a natural human tendency to want your students to be happy and excited about the field you are preparing them for,” and the transition from school to the workforce is “scary for anyone!”

Looking forward

Per the study, the students that reported feeling most prepared for their occupations were those who were seeking jobs in:

  • Education (96%).
  • Health care as professionals (95%).
  • Health care support (95%).
  • Life/physical/social sciences (94%).
  • Computer/mathematics (90%).

The top three industries students expect to enjoy once they secure jobs are as health care practitioners, in education and in life/physical/social sciences.

“Having happy educators and health care workers seems like a win to us. We hope reality aligns with their expectations,” the report said.

Students who feel the most prepared for their future are those entering the education or life/physical/social sciences workforce.

Some seniors plan to hold off on finding work after graduation, with 35% planning to travel and another 34% planning to take a break.

Hornung said graduating college students can take some comfort as they approach the job search, knowing they’re not alone.

“With social media like LinkedIn, Twitter and even some niches on Instagram, there are infinite resources and people to connect with to help with finding a good job, negotiating salary, etc.,” she said.