Students believe in the power of their degree for careers

Students in college or who recently finished their degree say they feel confident about their career prospects.

Despite economic pressures, U.S. college students and those who recently completed their bachelor’s degree say they’re optimistic about their future in the workforce, according to a new study.

The 2024 CFA Institute Graduate Outlook Survey found 70 percent of respondents feel “quite confident” or “very confident” in their future career prospects in today’s economic climate.

Among the fields students feel most confident to enter include STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), finance and sales, and media and marketing. Recent developments in technology, such as generative artificial intelligence (AI), make students more sure about the future of STEM compared to the year prior, but respondents are less confident in the impact of AI on their future careers.

Methodology

The survey was fielded online from March 19 to April 8 by Dynata. The total sample represents 9,916 young adult (aged 18 to 25) students globally pursuing a bachelor’s degree or higher, or who had graduated within the last three years. Other countries represented in the study include Canada, Mexico, Brazil, the U.K., Spain, France, Germany, the United Arab Emirates, India, Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, China and Australia.

From the U.S., the survey included 1,000 respondents, 58 percent of whom were recent graduates and 42 percent who were currently in college.

The job market for Gen Z: Compared to their peers globally, U.S. learners are less confident in their future career prospects, falling 8 percentage points short of the global average at 70 percent.

In 2023, 73 percent of respondents said they were “quite confident” or “very confident” in career prospects in the current economic climate, showing a downturn in students’ opinion of today’s economy.

The top three industries students feel confident about their career prospects in include STEM (28 percent), finance (22 percent) and sales, media and marketing (21). Students are 6 percentage points more likely to point to STEM jobs this year than in the year prior, which could be tied to the rise of generative AI tools in the past year.

Among the concerns students and graduates hold, 15 percent of respondents say they are worried about feeling underqualified for their desired job, and a similar number are worried about low pay in their preferred sector. Seven percent of respondents say they don’t have any concerns about their career prospects.

Over half (55 percent) of respondents say they’re looking to start a job after college, while 18 percent are instead going on to earn a post-graduate degree, 10 percent completing research, 8 percent taking a gap year and 7 percent planning to join a business graduate program.

ROI and college experiences: Despite a declining public opinion on the value of higher education, 81 percent of U.S. respondents say their career prospects have improved as a result of undertaking a university degree, 7 percentage points higher than the year prior.

When asked what gives them an edge in the job market upon graduation, 61 percent note their skills acquired, 58 percent their work experience and 44 percent their networks and contacts. Internships ranked closely behind in fourth (43 percent).

Less than one-third point to their grades achieved (31 percent) and 20 percent say their extracurriculars are helping them in the job market, which shows an opportunity for higher education practitioners to highlight the life skills and career development present in academics and co-curriculars.

Other studies have pointed to the value of college professors as career coaches, providing insight into the job market and available careers in their discipline. Similarly, 48 percent of respondents say they turn to their college professors for information and advice on career prospects, second only to friends (51 percent), with family and career guidance offices being the next most influential sources.

Tech in the workplace: With the rapid growth of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, students are feeling some pressure from new technologies on their job hunt.

A winter 2023 Student Voice survey by Inside Higher Ed and College pulse found 42 percent of students have said AI has influenced their career plans at least somewhat.

Half of respondents to CFA’s study say they believe AI and automation will make it more difficult for them to secure their desire job, with 11 percent believing it will be significantly more difficult, compared to 43 percent who believe it will only be slightly more challenging. One-third of respondents believe tech will have no impact.

On the job, 54 percent of respondents think AI and automation will be not very or not important at all to the success of their career path, compared to 45 percent who believe it will be very or quite important. Globally, two in three students say AI and automation will be important to the success of their desired career path.

As digital natives, recent grads and college students are employing social media in their career development. Two in five students say they’ve used social media for career exploration to see what they look like “in real life,” and three in 10 say they seek advice from influencers or creators about their career path. Social media is also incorporated into students’ personal marketing, with 37 percent using it for professional networking, 28 percent using it to build a professional presence and 20 percent using social media to land a job or internship.

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