There’s a lot of water cooler talk these days about the value of a college degree. We hear a lot of stories about how recent graduates have to move back in with their parents or how law school grads have to take jobs at Starbucks to make ends meet. I think that’s unfortunate, but sadly, it’s not surprising to me. It’s my belief that too many students are pursuing degrees with marginal value. That’s not to say they’re not important, but the laws of supply and demand apply to college degrees. If you a) get a degree in something where there are thousands of other people with that same degree and/or b) your degree have marginal value to society, then you’re going to have a tough time gaining employment after college, let alone securing high wages.
For those of you that are pursuing a college degree with the primary goal of increasing your wage potential, please consider the program where I teach: the Construction Management program at Sacramento State University. Before going forward, I’m not going to suggest that you pursue a degree in Construction Management solely for the sake of making money. You need to pursue something you will enjoy over the long haul because money alone cannot buy you happiness. However, let me present how our best students parlay their education into high paying jobs.
Most people consider construction management a very unsexy career path. Many of my friends think I teach college kids how to swing a hammer or dig ditches. But there’s huge demand for our graduates. Let me restate that: THERE IS HUGE DEMAND FOR OUR GRADUATES. Even in this soft economy. Many of our alumni manage multi-million dollar projects and get paid well to do it. Our best grads over the past few years routinely make starting salaries in the $60,000 to $70,000 range. Yes, you read that right. Suffice it to say, these kids aren’t moving back home with mom and dad. And with the need for improvements to our nation’s infrastructure, the long-term demand for construction management looks bright. Point 1: get a degree in something that is in demand.
So if you get a degree in Construction Management you’re guaranteed a salary in the mid $60,000’s, right? Not so fast. The students that get those offers go through a training process that’s incredibly rigorous. Getting a degree is just part of the process. Our program includes all of those tough classes such as calculus and physics. Our major classes combine engineering and management. It’s not easy. Point 2: the more rigorous the degree, the more likely the starting salary will be high (relatively speaking).
Secondly, our best students are members of teams that compete against other schools in construction simulation competitions. Practitioners working in upper management in the construction industry coach many of the teams. These competitions combine impossible deadlines, cranky judges, and presentations and wrap them in a neat bow of crushing stress. But what doesn’t kill them only makes them stronger. And there are a ton of recruiters at these competitions. So the competitions prepare the students to manage construction projects and give them entre to potential employers who, by the way, have seen them at their weakest and strongest during the competition. That’s the best kind of job interview you can have. Other majors, such as computer science and business have similar competitions. Point 3: get in front of potential employers and show off that you have skills that apply to the “real world.”
Thirdly, many of our students get internships before they graduate. I’ve been hearing some bad things about internships in other industries lately, such as companies using them as a way to get free labor or hiring recent graduates as interns because they don’t want to pay them full freight. That’s too bad. But in our case, the best students get the best internships (usually from companies that have seen them perform well in one of the competitions). Many of these internships pay in the $15-20 per hour range. Not too shabby. But better than that, after a year of interning, our students are ready for prime time. They’re a known quantity (which is good for employers) and internships oftentimes lead to job offers (which is good for students). Point 4: get an internship where you will gain valuable and practical experience before you enter the workforce on a full-time basis.
Lastly, many of our students that get the best offers go above and beyond what has already been listed. Several are involved in leadership of student governance groups or clubs. They prove, before they graduate, that they can manage people and successfully organize events. All companies are looking for leaders. If you can prove that you have the ability to lead early in your career (or better yet, before you start your career), you’re on the right path to a higher salary. Point 5: take on leadership positions (and perform them successfully).
This is hardly an exhaustive list, accomplishing the above is far from trivial. In fact, it’s very difficult. However, in my six-plus years of teaching, my observations lead me to believe that these are key to achieving a higher salaried job after college. And I think they apply to all students, whether pursing the arts or engineering.