While many UNC-system students graduate searching for a dream job, some are eventually forced to consider how they’ll pay tomorrow’s water bill.
Average starting salaries vary across the state and depend on the type of degree. But despite increasing state emphasis on technical skills rather than liberal arts, many students from both types of backgrounds said they have struggled finding the ideal job.
The average starting salary of undergraduates was $42,784 at UNC-CH may first destination external report.pdf, $46,521 at N.C. State University and $40,084 at UNC-Charlotte PGS Final Report.pdf for the class of 2011, according to surveys conducted by each university.
Ray Angle, director of UNC-CH’s University Career Services, said he was not surprised by the results.
He said for many students, the top concern is not money, it is what they can contribute to society.
Angle said many UNC-CH graduates go into social justice-related positions, including one-eighth of both of the past two graduating classes that applied for Teach for America.
According to a 2013 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the No. 1 value graduates look for in a job is the opportunity for personal growth, while job security is third, good benefits is fourth and a high starting salary is 12th.
More N.C. State graduates have science-, technology-, engineering- and math-related degrees while the majority of UNC-CH students go into non-STEM-related jobs, Angle said.
“N.C. State is historically an engineering school, and their starting salaries tend to start out higher,” Angle said. “They also tend to stay fairly stable.”
On the other hand, liberal arts degrees are not always tied to specific career fields so earning potential goes up as graduates move on to other types of jobs and fields, he said.
But many students still struggle to find jobs with their liberal arts degrees.
Charlene Hicks, who graduated from UNC-CH in 2012 with an English degree, now works as an insurance representative at State Farm in Raleigh.
While Hicks had other aspirations and job opportunities, salary was the most important factor in her decision.
Because she recently got married and her husband was going back to school, she needed a more steady income.
“I really can’t complain, but am I doing what I love? No, not really,” she said. “I couldn’t. It wasn’t realistic. I had to pay my own bills.”
Where students decide to work after graduation also affects their starting salary, said Denise Dwight Smith, director of UNC-C’s University Career Center for Work, Services and Internships.
Smith said UNC-C has a lower average starting salary because its students tend to stay in the area.
“One of the things to keep in mind is that many of our students stay in Charlotte, while many of Chapel Hill and N.C. State students move to the North where the salaries are much higher,” she said.
Nick Ionta, who graduated from UNC-C with a computer science degree, was unable to stay in Charlotte because he couldn’t find a job. He found a job in his field in Virginia.
“Obviously, I wanted a job in my field and one that would allow me to have a comfortable and relaxed work environment,” he said. “Unfortunately, northern Virginia is more expensive, so salary was more important.”
Angle said there are many other reasons why people might choose a career field besides salary and geographic location, including service-oriented work or job stability.
He said he would encourage students to go into work that they are most interested in, not what pays the most.
And Woody Catoe, assistant director of N.C. State’s University Career Center, said in an email while the College of Engineering produces the most graduates, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences is close behind.
He said recent studies, including a 2012 one by NACE, are reaffirming the value of liberal arts degrees.
In the study, employers were asked what skills they considered essential in new hires.
“The top 10 list spoke to skills inherently learned in the liberal arts much more so than those found in more technical majors,” Catoe said. “This is especially true for STEM majors who may be technically prepared but lacking in communication and writing skills.”
But according to the study, employers still seek people who can analyze quantitative data, work with computer software and other technical aspects.
Catoe said an education should be measured by how it prepares students to contribute to society, in addition to salary.
“We don’t need every student to be in a STEM major, but we do need students who are informed about these areas just as we need technically prepared students to be able to articulate and communicate their ideas clearly.”
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