Author: Vanessa Miller
As many of Iowa’s new university graduates peer out over the employment landscape, they’re finding a workers’ market. Replacing the stress that saturated job searches during and soon after the Recession years ago is a sense of possibility and employment opportunity — if, in fact, that’s what a student wants.
But not everyone does. “Gap years” — which some undergrads take between graduating and starting a career or graduate school — have become increasingly common.
“It sounds very millennial, but it’s an opportunity for self-exploration and starting on the right foot, rather than jumping into a career,” said Rachel Zuckerman, a recent University of Iowa graduate and former student government president who is taking her version of a “gap” over the coming months for internships and experience-building before applying to public administration masters programs.
“The gap year has become popular,” she said.
Some have criticized the concept as lackadaisical and counter to the traditional work ethic pounded into previous generations. Others praise the space as enabling students to achieve perspective on future aspirations or build experience before diving into another round of schooling.
The decision to take time off post-graduation can help or hurt employment or further education prospects — depending on the student and the field he or she is pursuing. But many analysts across Iowa affirm the job market right now is robust — especially for this state’s grads in this region — leaving them plenty of options.
“People seem very enthused about their new opportunities — whatever those might be,” Zuckerman said.
Only a small fraction of students report still seeking either work or additional schooling six months after graduating from UI, Iowa State University or University of Northern Iowa, according to those schools’ data.
About 95 percent of the responding graduates at UI, ISU and UNI had a job, were enrolled in some form of continuing education, or were not seeking work for the six months after the end of the 2015-16 school year, the most recent term for which data is available.
That means the vast majority of students departing Iowa’s public universities are following the post-graduation path of their choosing.
“The job market is so robust that a lot of them are taking advantage of starting their career,” said Matt Nuese, with career services at UNI.
'THERE'S NO EXCUSE'
Among the hottest programs for post-graduation success are engineering, agriculture, finance and accounting. The health sciences also are booming, according to industry experts and Iowa university administrators.
“Our postings for jobs and internships and student employment have gone up the last few years,” said Angi McKie, senior director of operations for the UI Pomerantz Career Center. “So definitely there’s an absolute interest in hiring University of Iowa students.”
That interest is apparent in the university’s booming job fairs, where McKie said employers are eager to been seen and heard.
“We consistently have a waiting list for those employers that want to come to the fair,” she said. “We’ve kind of maxed out on space.”
Those fairs are ideal for some of the less-known companies, who don’t have the same name recognition as industry giants but are competing for top talent. Through the fairs, those employers can sell themselves to prospective job seekers — indicating why the percentage of Iowa students landing jobs, earning admission to graduate school or feeling the freedom to take a gap year has increased from about 90 percent after the 2011-12 school year to the 95 percent after last year.
“I think any time you see unemployment rates drop, you start to see things switch a little bit to where employers may have a little bit harder time filing positions,” McKie said.
Mike Gaul, director of career services for ISU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, acknowledged some volatility affecting his field — including industry mergers, political unrest, commodity prices and a surge of students interested in the agriculture industry, potentially affecting the supply-and-demand balance. And yet, he said, “The Job market still is pretty doggone good for AG and life sciences.”
“If a student comes in and makes any sort of effort to find a job, and really puts their best foot forward, there’s no excuse for not having one,” Gaul said.
The agriculture college’s job fair peaked at 279 employer participants in fall 2014, up from around 150 in 2008-09, and it remained near that level in fall 2016, at 262, according to Gaul.
The college’s post-graduation placement rate was around 98 percent six months after the last academic year. The sneak peek of placement rates in May — for those who just graduated — showed 65 percent already have job or education plans.
That, according to Gaul, is much higher than the esteemed 50 percent rate nationally. And for the college’s most popular programs such as AG business, the at-graduation placement rate this May was north of 73 percent and as high as 86 percent.
“That is fantastic,” he said.
What is not as great, from Gaul’s perspective, is the rise in students taking a more “lackadaisical” approach to finding a job.
“Students are given everything they need to be successful in college,” he said. “And from a career service perspective … there’s nothing that frustrates us more than having students not take advantage of these things to position themselves for a career when they get out of here.”
This is a thriving job market, and students who spend their time during college working internships and — perhaps — studying abroad should be able to take advantage.
“The increase I’ve seen of students, when I do track them down, who say, ‘Well, I’m taking a gap year, I’m going to go travel Europe or I’m going to work with a buddy,” he said. “I think that mind-set has increased over decades.”
‘CAN'T AFFORD TO DO A GAP YEAR’
Recent ISU graduate Cole Staudt knows well the gap year concept. He’s got friends taking advantage of that option. It’s not for him, though. With a summer gig lined up in Washington, D.C., and plans to pursue an online master’s degree in the fall, Staudt said he’s just started hitting hard his efforts to secure a permanent job by August.
“There are certainly a lot more people wanting to take a break before they get back into school,” he said, noting many have the financial means to do so. “But I can’t afford to do a gap year …. I need to get a job because I want to start paying student loans.”
UI graduate Zuckerman defended the concept of a gap year as encouraged by some career counselors and admissions officials who want not just an undergraduate degree, but real-world experience.
And Beth Gazley, director of the top-ranked master of public affairs program at Indiana University, confirmed gap years are viewed positively and, in fact, are encouraged by her institution. She stressed students coming straight from undergraduate school often present as strong candidates as well.
But, she said, “In an ideal world, we’d love everyone to come in with experience first.”
In fact, she said, Indiana has made adjustments to encourage that, after finding many uncertain undergrads were hedging their bets by jumping into a master’s program. Students today receive credit toward their degree for workplace experience, according to Gazley.
And, she said, even using a gap year to travel can build valuable “real-world” skills that are welcome in the classroom and valued in the workforce.
“Some of the most exceptional undergrad students on the campus took some time off or maximized their ability to get work experience,” she said. “They end up being very well-rounded.”