284,000 college grads making minimum wage

While the number of degree holders working the lowest-paying jobs has fallen a bit since 2010, it's still up 70% in the past decade.

By Jason Notte Apr 2, 2013 7:06AM

Image: Fast food worker (© Creatas/PictureQuest)Watch that minimum wage debate carefully, college students: It's your first job people are fighting over.


While Congress and the president squabble over giving workers an extra 2 bucks an hour, The Wall Street Journal reports that 284,000 Americans with college degrees worked minimum wage jobs last year. That's down from a 2010 high of 327,000, but it does mean that 70% more college grads are earning minimum wage than a decade ago.


With art-school students and MBAs alike crushed by debt and even Ph.D. students seeking food stamps in increasing numbers, it's understandable that folks would write off college education as an expensive waste in the current economy. Yet a college degree is just about the only way young Americans benefit from the sluggish economic recovery.


From 2010, when the job market bottomed out, to 2012, workers with bachelor's degrees saw their employment rate increase by 5%. Those with advanced degrees fared even better: Among workers with master's, doctoral or professional degrees, about 1.1 million more reported having a job in 2012 than in 2010. According to the Labor Department, that 6.7% increase represents the fastest employment gain of any education level during that span.


Unfortunately, people without an advanced education are getting pushed out of the labor market altogether. The 36% of American workers older than 25 with a high school education or less started losing jobs in 2007 and haven't stopped. About 767,000 fewer of them reported having a job in 2012 than in 2010, and 2 million workers in that demographic left the job market altogether during that span.

It doesn't help that the college kids are sucking up just about every job imaginable. The U.S. economy has recovered 5.7 million of the 8.7 million jobs shed during the recession. Roughly 65% of those regained jobs have been of the low-wage variety, though the National Employment Law Project says nearly 60% of all jobs lost during the recession paid middle-income wages or better.


As a result, The Center For College Affordability and Productivity reported that nearly half of the college graduates from the class of 2010 are working in jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree. A full 38% have taken gigs that don't even require a high school education. According to The Associated Press, that has dropped the median wage for college graduates significantly since 2000.


That's a lot of parchment behind the counters at Starbucks (SBUX), Panera Bread (PNRA) and Wal-Mart (WMT), but it's not going to stop a flood of overqualified applicants from stuffing Costco's (COST) inbox when the company says it supports boosting the minimum wage. To student loan providers, cash from big-box store paychecks looks just the same as that doled out by the payroll departments at Goldman Sachs (GS) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM).


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Apr 2, 2013 11:20AM

As someone who supervises college students as interns on a regular basis, one thing I have noticed is the unrealistic expectations of today's youth.  Many of them expect to start out making more than I make with an advanced degree and twenty years experience.

Apr 1, 2013 3:11PM
Maybe they need degrees in skills USEFUL to employers?   Do I really need history, literature, art, liberal arts majors?   How about engineers, IT people, and people with accounting skills?

Apr 2, 2013 10:09AM

No one thing or person to blame, but the colleges themselves are guilty for allowing students to borrow massive amounts to pursue useless degrees. I'm thinking Sociology, Psychology, Graphics Arts, and so many more.


Want a great job: Carpenter, Plumber, Air Conditioning, Electrician, the trades go begging. Some of these trades make great money, trust me, I did their taxes for years.


I'm a CPA and it ain't a bad way to make a living. Yes, it's college and the test is a son of gun but worth the effort.. Everybody has an accountant. I've worked in many businesses. Semi Retired now and still working part time at home in my pajamas or out on the deck.


Last year I spoke with one client graduating in Law Enforcement who couldn't find work. At the time our brilliant Government cut essential Police & Fire employment to save money rather than any really wasteful program.  I told him to join the Air Force, which is the cleanest living and best of the services, But the Army & Navy has cops too. He is now a 2nd LT running a squad of Air Police. He can do a career or muster out. A Vet with experience is a valued employee almost anywhere. He'll have a whole new world when he gets out.


Yea, I'm a USAF Vet and Uncle Sugar paid for my college! No college loans here!

Apr 2, 2013 11:17AM

I graduated from UCF in December with a Bacehlor's in Accounting and I had a job waiting for me before I even graduated. I CHOSE a degree I knew would be marketable and an easy sell to employers. All these students with pointless degrees end up really hurting themselves because noone cares that you have a communications or arts degree. You end up graduating in debt and with a degree thats about as useless as a GED. And people who blame it on experience, how about you get some before you graduate. I found an internship at Siemens during school because I searched diligently for one and didn't give up. If you want something bad enough you can EARN it. All these students go to college to party and expect to just fall into a great job after school. It's a rude awakening for the simple minded.

Apr 1, 2013 3:33PM

The real problem is that college students are stuck in the experience-degree catch 22. Jobs require some level of experience -- even for entry level jobs -- but they also want a degree to match. Students are pressured to remain full-time, which increases their work loads and tuition fees to the point that they cannot afford to have part-time college jobs (which may or may not increase their experience in their field). Colleges and Universities that offer semester internships take away another semester of courses that may or may not be available the following semester due to funding/scheduling. Colleges often do not have any openings for on campus jobs due to funding cuts and, in some places, there are no off-campus locales to offer jobs either.


This isn't completely about "useless" degrees. My friend has an MBA in Finance but could not find a single job -- not even an internship -- for 8 months after graduation. Target wouldn't even take him for a part-time job because he was "overqualified" to be a cashier or security guard. He's since gone back to school to waste more money on more undergraduate and graduate level courses to get another degree in Mechanical Engineering -- with which he's hoping to have more luck. I have a BA in History (typically characterized as a "useless degree") and, had my current employer not taken a chance on my inexperienced skills for my position, I would be stuck at my previous part-time job where I held barely 12hrs/wk. Other job postings for my position in my area want 5-7 years experience and a degree in the field for an entry level applicant. The experience-degree problem is going to continue putting college students into debt and employed at the lowest wage jobs they can convince to take them.

Apr 2, 2013 11:27AM
I own a software company.  I employ 88 skilled programmers, network technicians, system analysts, etc.  I used to hire recent college grads for junior-level positions but stopped.  Geez, what a sorry bunch of idiots these liberal colleges are producing nowadays.
Apr 2, 2013 11:36AM
So a kid with a Masters degree in "Basket Weaving" doesn't understand why he doesn't deserve a six figure position in corporate management?   WOW!!
Apr 2, 2013 11:18AM
My nephew got a pretty useless degree from a prominent university.  There is just no job market for the things he studied.  He is now planning to go back to college for a degree in engineering.  My young son is an engineer and is working, but his wife is a high school English teacher and can't find a job anywhere.  She works two minimum pay jobs and is now pursuing a masters in teaching.  I don't know if a masters would help since she already can't find a teaching position.  I don't think some young people think it out when they  pursue a degree - that you have to get a marketable one these days, especially with today's job market being so tight.
The one thing I have noticed about job seekers is the lack of wiliness to relocate. I have actually assisted young people in receiving job offers who turned the offer down because they did not wish to live in a particular area of the country.
Apr 2, 2013 9:47AM
Obama pushing college degrees, on taxpayer funded student loans, that they can't pay back making minimum wage. Just another Obama train wreck waiting to happen.....
Apr 2, 2013 11:20AM
Obama has/had no intention of raising the minimum wage.  Keeping wages low through high unemployment is a necessity to maintain low interest rates, keeping debt expenditures under control, and enacting the New One World Economy.  Amazing how many folks do not get the unscrupulous actions of politicians.  How do you folks think we got into the positions we are in today?  Because Politicians actually mean and do what they say?  Stupid people make the rest of us victims as well.  JMHO
Apr 2, 2013 10:02AM
A couple of weeks ago, Bernanke's continuous feed into the stock markets produced 300,000 new and useless millionaires. Decide your future, folks. Best to end paper and button pushing administrators and sever ties with organized financial tyranny. Neither can float without us bolstering them. Every youth at Minimum Wage guarantees a Senior will finish life impoverished and without the ability to do much about it. We are so far away from Actual America that it isn't funny or sunny.
Apr 2, 2013 10:20AM
I know, offer universal healthcare that companies are forced to pay for and that will make it easier for people to get full time jobs!

I mean, Europe does it, and they're doing great, right?
Apr 2, 2013 11:28AM

Sucks to be a Liberal Arts major.

I chose to get a degree in something useful, so my salary has gone up by a hair over 50% since the recession started.

Apr 2, 2013 9:34AM
A President and an administration that have a lick of sense about economics is the only way to alleviate this, and other job problems for our country. Even the entry level jobs at fast food restaurants are getting their hours cut due to the stupid Obama-insana-care rules. 
Apr 2, 2013 9:57AM

Hmmm, maybe getting an liberal arts "education" wasn't a good idea afterall!  Like voting for the dummyrats.

Apr 2, 2013 12:43PM

Everyone here seems to act like everyone can just jump into Accounting or Computer Programming and zip along to a great job. I'm sorry, but not everyone can attain those skills. If we could, don't you think we'd all be flocking to those industries' salaries? Could everyone here just magically be able to learn the higher level science and math skills those jobs require? Because I know I couldn't. I'm a great student, but I know when I'm not picking something up. Not everyone can do that kind of work, just like most people can't make movies or some can't be in the military. For some of us, soft sciences are where our brains are the most useful, and despite the flagging job market I think there's still a lot of demand for these jobs, it's just that the older population is still working rather than retiring because of the bad economy.

Apr 2, 2013 1:11PM
Our society is screwed up.  We don't value people who know a specific trade as much as we should.  We look at college and education as only a vehicle for money making.  If everyone was an engineer and IT and accountant then we would have a bunch of different issues.  I personally think that we should stop blaming the economy, and sneering at people's different majors. I admire people who do what they are passionate about, and if they don't make enough money to support themselves then they will have to work a little extra, but I guarantee 90% of them are not kicking themselves saying "I should have majored in math".  We are way too concerned about making money, and most of these comments support that argument.
Apr 2, 2013 11:57AM
I meet college students all the time who are majoring in Anthropology, Sociology, History, Art, Art History, English Literature and a dozen other absolutely worthless degrees. I met an  English Lit major who after graduation got a job transcribing recipes from print cookbooks to an online cookbook...something anyone who can type could do. If you go to college, make sure to graduate with an actual skill set...accounting, engineering, teaching, chemistry, etc. And remember, plumbing, electrician, carpenter, welder, mechanic...these are honorable blue-collar professions that will always be needed, and those guys make plenty of dough and have all the work they can handle. 
Apr 2, 2013 11:43AM
I have noticed the tv stations are being flooded with all this university crap giving the impression if you call now you will be rolling in dough. Not! Ur just making the scammers richer
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