An unemployed man after college holding out his hand.

Unemployed after college? Here’s what nobody told you.

Being unemployed after college is the norm, not the exception—and that’s not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most students can’t find a job after college because the sheer number of bachelor degree holders per capita is more than three times higher today than it was in the 1970s.

 

Facts about unemployment after college

It’s normal to stress about finding a job, but did you know that it takes new grads an average of 7.4 months to find a job (according to Indeed)? On top of that, companies have cut back on hiring recent graduates by about 45% in total since COVID-19 began to affect the economy.

This is one of the worst periods to enter the job market in college in living memory—right up there with the 2008 recession and the recession from the early 1990s.

Takeaway #1: don’t beat yourself up over being unemployed after college. It’s probably not your fault.

There’s also data that suggests certain majors are prone to higher rates of unemployment and underemployment. Check out these graphs to see where your major falls.

 

Bar graph showing unemployment rate by degree in 2016-2017.

 

The students most prone to immediate unemployment after college graduated in these majors:

  1. Anthropology
  2. Philosophy
  3. Mathematics
  4. Nutrition Sciences
  5. Fine Arts
  6. English
  7. Physics
  8. Earth Sciences
  9. General Engineering
  10. Information Systems

That’s just unemployment, though—it’s the ability to find any kind of job. The long-term problem is actually underemployment. This graph below ranks majors by their susceptibility to underemployment, which is the inability to find work that matches the skills and pay level of the degree in question.

 

Bar graph showing underemployment by degree in 2016-2017.

 

Notice the difference? These are the majors most susceptible to underemployment:

  1. Anthropology
  2. Fine Arts
  3. History
  4. Marketing
  5. Political Science
  6. Philosophy
  7. English
  8. Nutritional Sciences
  9. Biology
  10. Earth Sciences

That list contains a lot of liberal arts and humanities disciplines, and it’s no wonder why some people think that those degrees don’t offer job prospects. According to the Wall Street Journal, graduating into underemployment makes people 5 times more likely to stay underemployed for the next 5 years compared to graduates who enter more appropriate jobs right away.

Recent graduates can and do run into these same problems even if they were just fired from their first job after college with some experience under their belts.

 

 

The pandemic hurt everyone’s job prospects

This topic isn’t about the pandemic, but it’s worth mentioning the scope of how many people experienced job loss since it began.

Pew Research found that younger people have been more susceptible to job loss than middle aged and older age groups. Pew ranked respondents by age group and found these numbers:

  • 50% of Gen Z households experienced job loss.
  • 40% of Millennial households experienced job loss.
  • 36% of Gen X households experienced job loss.
  • 25% of Baby Boomer Households experienced job loss.

Generation z was affected the most, ensuring that life will not be getting better after college for some time for about half of graduates in that age group.

That’s a problem for Gen Z graduates because job postings for bachelor degree holders have dropped by at least 40% since March 2020, according to a report from Burning Glass and Workday.

 

Bar graph showing job posting decline since March 2020 according to level of education.

 

That same report also laid out the decline in job postings by experience level, too. Postings requiring 0-2 years of experience and 3-5 years of experience both fell by 45%. That’s nearly half of all entry-level job opportunities disappearing.

 

Bar graph showing job post decline since March 2020 by experience required.

 

Hiring of recent grads has fallen 45% since the pandemic started [Burning Glass]

  • Convert chart on decline in job postings for degree holders (p.5)
  • Convert chart on decline in postings by experience required (p.5)

If you’re hurting for cash then one of the best things you can do is to start living at home after college. It’ll help you save on the biggest costs of living, which include:

  • Rent: about $13,000 per year.
  • Transportation: about $8,000 per year.
  • Food: about $6,000 per year.

 

Bar chart of average living costs for Americans under 25 years.

 

How to end unemployment after college

Okay, so the deck is stacked against you—but how do you actually find a job after college? There are a few strategies you can follow, both of which are covered below.

  1. Apply for internships, since they have high acceptance rates and a high rate of transition to full-time employment.
  2. Follow a 7-step road map to find real work experience, a stunning portfolio, and the framework to turn interviews to your advantage.

 

 

Internships are good bets

If you don’t have any promising leads then take a look at getting an internship after college. They tend to have excellent rates of transition to paying jobs.

The offer rate for interns has been quite high in the last 7 years or so, ranging from about 58% at its lowest to 80% at its highest.

 

Bar graph showing the internship offer rate in the United States from 2014 to 2021.

 

On top of that, companies offering internships have a high rate of transition into full-time jobs of 70.4% in the United States.

 

Pie chart showing that 70.4% of employers offer full-time employment to interns who have successfully completed their internships, as of 2019.

 

The only potential pitfall with internships is the potential lack of pay. Out of all the fortune 500 companies that offer internships, only about 60% offer paid positions, and the average pay among those that do sits at $14 per hour.

If you land an internship without pay then you may need to live at home again. It could still be worth the experience, but you need to know how the finances are going to work in order to pull it off.

Don’t worry about being “behind” the crowd. 31% of interns do their internship after graduating, so you’ll be in good company.

 

Bar graph showing that 31% of interns begin internships after college.

 

The process that actually works

If you don’t want to join an internship then there is another strategy you can follow. It’s a 7-step road map that takes you from being an unskilled graduate to a competitive job candidate in a relatively short period of time.

This is what you need to do:

  1. Quantify your resume experience and give your resume a new coat of paint.
  2. Optimize your LinkedIn profile with your new resume figures and a multimedia element.
  3. Get recruiters to work for you, then set up targeted notifications in online job boards.
  4. Start knocking on doors to earn your very own work experience projects.
  5. Build a portfolio website for yourself (the road map comes with a guide for this).
  6. Dedicate more time toward high-value networking to earn trust before asking for a job.
  7. Apply with all of your unfair advantages and turn interviews into working sessions.

At the end of the process you’ll have far more experience than most other recent graduates and a killer personal brand that you can take with you for every job afterward, too.

 

FAQ

Is it normal to be unemployed after college?

Yes. According to Indeed, it takes the average graduate 7.4 months to find a job. That’s just the average, though. It’s not unheard of for recent graduates to remain unemployed for more than a year.

 

It’s been 2 years after college, no job. What should I do?

Job searching is soul-sucking—first of all, good on you for continuing to search anyway! That shows real character. If you’ve been unemployed for 2 years then then it’s definitely time to change tactics.

No more waiting for opportunities. No more apologizing for a lack of experience.

Here are steps you can take to land your first job after college.

  1. Decide on the industry you want to join and the kind of role you want. Research them. Ask people in your network to help you narrow it down.
  2. Think about the skills and the kind of experience you need for the role you want. Outline specific work experience you need to get there.
  3. Find businesses, consultants, sole proprietors, or non-profits in the area and pitch them projects where you can build those skills. Do this 3 times.
  4. At the end of the projects, measure and report the success. Ask for written recommendations on LinkedIn as well.
  5. Add that experience to your resume and quantify it.
  6. Rebrand yourself as a freelancer to explain the gap in your work history between graduation and now.

 

 

What percentage of college graduates are unemployed?

According to the University of Washington, about 53% of recent graduates are either unemployed or underemployed.

 

What percent of college students get a job after they graduate?

These numbers can be overly dependent on the sample of the study, but there are some numbers around this. According to PEW Research, the employment rate for new grads in 2019 was 78%, which dropped to 69% in 2020.

Keep in mind that “employment” includes part-time and minimum wage work, which is not what most people hope to get after college.

 

Why are so many college graduates unemployed?

In 1970 there were far fewer bachelor degree holders compared to today. Even if you measure it per capita, there were at least 300% more of them in 2016. On top of that, entry-level jobs have become more technically demanding. More eligible workers on the job market and a higher barrier to entry make finding a job that much harder.

And, as discussed above, job postings for entry-level positions have dropped between 40-45% since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit North America.

 

What degree has the highest unemployment rate?

As discussed above, students with these degrees have the highest unemployment rate right after college.

  1. Anthropology
  2. Philosophy
  3. Mathematics
  4. Nutrition Sciences
  5. Fine Arts
  6. English
  7. Physics
  8. Earth Sciences
  9. General Engineering
  10. Information Systems

However, unemployment is a fairly short-term metric. Underemployment is what keeps people from high-paying jobs in the long run, and that list is a little different.

These are the most underemployed disciplines right after college:

  1. Anthropology
  2. Fine Arts
  3. History
  4. Marketing
  5. Political Science
  6. Philosophy
  7. English
  8. Nutritional Sciences
  9. Biology
  10. Earth Sciences

 

Being unemployed after college sucks, but don’t give up. Live in a financially safe space, craft a strategy, and try new tactics. You’ll find a job with persistence and a learning mindset.

Andrew Webb

Andrew Webb

Founder of the Employed Historian, Andrew entered the working world with two history degrees and zero technical knowledge. Then he worked on those technical skills and discovered something profound about the liberal arts. By day he's a professional search engine optimization specialist and content marketer at Webb Content.

Read the latest from Employed Historian