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‘I don’t know what to do with my major’ and other reasons college grads can’t find jobs

Mike Segar | Reuters

Despite the improving entry-level job market, a new survey shows that many new grads still struggle to find the right fit for their skills and interests.

In a survey of 503 entry-level job seekers by national career matchmaking firm GradStaff, recent college grads seem largely unaware of career opportunities and unsure of how to apply their skills in the workforce.

The survey, conducted from May to September 2016, revealed inefficient career preparation, job search methods and entry-level recruiting tactics. Among the key findings:

  • Nearly 70 percent of respondents were either unemployed or working in a full-time non-professional job to make ends meet.

  • Another 20 percent had full-time professional jobs, but were already looking for a new one.

  • Respondents had been looking for work an average of 3.6 months and applied for about 23 jobs – an average of less than two applications per week.

  • About half of respondents had participated in fewer than two interviews during the average job search time frame.

  • 86 percent of respondents reported having no job offers pending at the time they took the survey.

While a compelling need for technology skills and a steady number of baby boomers retiring are prompting many employers to increase their hires at the entry-level, the research indicates that many new grads are unaware of these opportunities.

What are some of the obstacles new grads face in finding and seizing career opportunities? The survey shows that awareness and guidance, not skill or motivation, is most lacking:

  • When asked: "Other than lack of work experience, what are the top two obstacles in your job search?" more than 75 percent of respondents answered "I don't know what positions are a fit for me."

  • The second most common response (46 percent) was "I don't know what to do with my major."

These answers would indicate a lack of career coaching and counseling. Additional data from the survey supports this conclusion:

  • Almost 71 percent of survey respondents indicated that they visited college career services two times or fewer.

  • Nearly 35 percent said they never stepped foot in career services.

  • Of those who used their career services department, only 36.6 percent rated their overall experience as a 4 or 5, with 5 being the highest rating.

The most popular job search strategies focused on job-posting aggregators like Indeed, conventional job posting sites such as CareerBuilder and Monster, and professional networking sites like LinkedIn. Although 78 percent of respondents reported having created a LinkedIn profile, only 24 percent said they used this tool "very often" in looking for a job. In terms of personal networking, only 40 percent said they used this job search strategy "very often."

Regarding employer size, 92 percent of respondents stated they'd prefer employers of 1,000 employees or less, with 30 percent of the total preferring smaller employers of 100 employees or less. With only 8 percent preferring large employers, the Class of 2016 is strongly interested in working for the small and medium employer.

Interpreting the survey data leads me to several important conclusions:

  1. New graduates are often leaving college without the knowledge necessary to conduct an effective job search. Not knowing what jobs are a fit or what can be done with a specific major is clearly an obstacle. Unfortunately, this information is readily available as colleges can collect this data from alumni, but, in most cases, this information is not available to students.

  2. Career services departments are not connecting with students. We believe that the data points to two reasons. First, students are pushing off their job searches until after graduation, whether to take some time off, travel, or to just try and figure out what's next. Second, with only about 37 percent giving their career services department an above average rating, it is clear colleges need to improve the student experience.

  3. Job seekers continue to rely heavily on online search tools. Based on the finding that college grads "don't know what jobs are a fit for me," it is highly likely that many jobs are overlooked due to lack of knowledge not available through online search tools. A psychology major working in a healthcare software position may not be obvious, but is a real life example of what can happen with the right knowledge.

  4. With new grads more interested in small and medium employers, job prospects are good since employers of 500 employees or less create two-thirds or more of the new jobs in the U.S. economy. However, these companies don't typically interview on campus. Thus, personal networking is critical in finding opportunities with small and medium employers – a technique used by less than half of job seekers.

The data shows that the pathway from student to entry-level professional worker is both long and hard for many new college graduates. Students must start the process earlier and colleges must improve the services they offer students in career readiness and practical job search skills. Finally, the data highlights a clear need for third-party innovators to assist both colleges and students in making the pathway to the first job more successful. By helping to make connections between career-ready students and the employers who want to hire them, third-party resources can play a key role in the hiring economy.

Commentary by Robert J. LaBombard, CEO, GradStaff, Inc., an online career site that helps college graduates find jobs. Mr. LaBombard has more than 22 years of staffing industry experience as CEO of GradStaff, Inc. and founder and CEO of EnviroStaff, Inc.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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