Back to Work 2011

Hot Majors at Community Colleges

Rob Reuteman,|Special to

One lasting benefit of this recession may be the greatly improved linkage between employers and colleges that now provide much more precise information to students seeking fruitful, long-lasting jobs when they graduate.

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Whether a new college student or a laid-off worker seeking to enhance skills before re-entering an unforgiving job market, there’s a wealth of useful data to plot a long-range career path.

“Many people don’t have the luxury of learning for learning’s sake,” says Norma Kent, vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges. “As the recession became more pronounced, there was much more of a strategic workforce emphasis, for new students or those seeking to reinvent themselves.”

The nation’s 1,200 community colleges have seen double-digit enrollment increases in the past three years, now serving 12 million students, she says. And, finally, there’s better news awaiting grads.

For the first time since 2007, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reports a double-digit increase in spring hiring projections. NACE’s 2011 Job Outlook Spring Update showed a planned increase in hiring of 13.5 percent for this year’s crop of new graduates.

“In 2011, employers are much more optimistic,” says Edwin Koc, NACE’s director of strategic research. “Business was better, and management seems to have taken the lid off hiring. They’re beginning to work the talent pipeline again.”

Top-Paying Majors

Twice a year, NACE surveys its 900 member employers and 1,800 colleges and universities to come up with a list of top-paying college majors and their corresponding average salary offers.

Four of the top five for this summer are engineering professions: petroleum ($80,849), chemical($65,618), computer ($65,618) and mining and mineral ($63,969). The fifth is computer science ($63,402).

“As I look at the current job market, I see more companies looking for students with technical skills,” Koc says. “The market is clearly better for grads with computer science, engineering, accountants, economics majors." 

The job picture not as encouraging right now for education, English or general liberal arts grads, he added, but that’s likely to change before long.

“The longer-term prospects for students studying education or liberal arts are good. Educational categories right now are showing an extremely bad market," says Koc.

But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently listed the occupations with the most job openings through 2018 for those with a bachelor’s degree.

Elementary school teachers topped the list (597,000), with high-school teachers third (412,000) and middle-school teachers fourth (251,000).

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“It depends on how long you want to wait,” Koc said. “There’s no marketplace for (teachers) until governments get revenue back. Private sector is what’s hiring.”

It’s important to note, especially for non-engineering students, that the highest-paying college majors are the hardest fields of study for people to stick with, said Jeff Strohl, director of research at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and theWorkforce.

“To succeed as a petroleum engineer, it takes certain values and tradeoffs," he says. "You have to be willing to spend much of your work life in a lab.”

“Our most popular majors are not necessarily the highest paying,” Strohl adds. “People are not always after money.”

Strohl co-authored a recent report, "What's it Worth," which outlines in great detail the average wage returns to specific college majors.

The top five with the highest median earnings: petroleum engineer ($120,000); pharmacy ($105,000); mathematics and computer sciences ($98,000); aerospace engineering ($87,000) and chemical engineering ($86,000).

  • See Slideshow of Top-Ten on The List

Click ahead to see which majors earn the most

The five majors with the lowest median earnings: counseling/psychology ($29,000); early childhood education ($36,000); theology and religious vocations ($38,000); human services and community organizations ($38,000) and social work ($39,000).

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The CEW report also listed some fields with virtually no unemployment: geological and geophysical engineering; military technologies; pharmacology and student counseling.

Back To School

Traditional students aside, higher education today is awash with workers who’ve lost their jobs, many after decades of steady employment.

Many have gone back to school to update skills or learn new ones. Many more have little idea what to study; they only know they need lasting employment with some assurance of not landing back on the street again.

"In the last two years, we’ve deliberately focused on developing educational training opportunities for dislocated workers,” says Jim Shanahan, director of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute at Lorain County Community College in northeastern Ohio. “Thousands upon thousands have hit the streets from every walk of life.”

Community colleges tend to be very responsive to prominent industries in the local communities they serve, offering “lots of industry-specific certifications,” said AACC’s Kent. “Some students are on the margins, they can’t afford even two years in school. Typically , we will take those people and help them do a self-assessment, find out what experiential things could apply to a new career.”

Shanahan works with his region’s major employers as well as five other nearby colleges.

“We connect the students we prepare for the jobs (employers) have,” he says. “We’ve enabled large numbers of people to get credit for one- or two-year certification programs. They have a limited amount of time before they have to be back working full time. We’ve had great success with people who’ve spent maybe 20 years in banking, energy or construction who need to get into something else.”

Picking a major is not the answer, he added. “Picking out what you want to do with your life is the answer. We spend a great deal of effort helping them pick a career that will help them find a job in the region.”

And while a job in the region may be ideal, it may not be practical, said Greg Flores, director of Portland State University's Career Center.

“Our message has been that students need to work harder and look further away, certainly a further commute and possible relocate to a different metro area,” Flores says.

“These days, we tell our students that their job is finding a job,” Flores adds. “Some who are forced to make a career change are forced into a situation where they are looking to pay the mortgage, rather than looking for the best fit.”

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Flores is spending more time with area employers, trying to get them to show up again at the school’s job fairs.

“Employers don’t really have to do that much extra outreach these days, they get enough applications on their own,” he says.

For displaced workers considering a post-graduate degree, Georgetown’s Strohl could not be more supportive.

“Without a doubt it is worth going back to grad school,” he said. “We calculate it will bring an average 18 percent pay boost. Enhancing one’s skills generally makes sense in or out of a recession.”