HIGHER EDUCATION – Prepping for a profession – Which college majors will pay off in Northeast Wisconsin?

In a tough job market, even those earning a bachelor’s degree may wonder which industries are hiring, but there is good news. New college graduate hiring is up 10.2 percent over last year, according to a recent study conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. In some fields in Northeastern Wisconsin, demand has remained strong, and is projected to get even stronger.

“Plastics,” was the career advice that Mr. McGuire famously gave young Dustin Hoffman in the 1967 movie “The Graduate.” Today in the New North, that advice would be “Engineering.”

“Engineering demand is through the roof,” says Jeff Sachse, regional economist for Northeast Wisconsin with the state Department of Workforce Development. Data for the third week in April showed openings in the New North for 80 mechanical engineers, 35 electrical engineers and 30 industrial engineers, and “that’s a pretty typical week.”

Northeast Wisconsin’s strong manufacturing base keeps demand high. “The manufacturing sector always has a strong demand for engineers and that demand has increased as manufacturers have embraced more high-tech forms of production,” says Sachse.

Area colleges have collaborated with other schools in the state to help meet the region’s need for engineering degrees. UW-Fox Valley partners with the engineering program at UW-Platteville, while UW-Green Bay partners with UW-Milwaukee. NWTC has a manufacturing engineering program which it offers through UW-Stout.

However, local four-year engineering degree programs are in the works. According to UW-Oshkosh’s College of Letters and Science, UW-Oshkosh just recently received the entitlements to plan three new majors in engineering technology – electrical, mechanical and environmental. These will be joint programs with UW-Green Bay, and the school is working in collaboration with area two-year colleges and technical colleges.

“There’s lots of support in our community to have that program,” says Jaime Page-Stadler, director of Career Services for UW-Oshkosh.

Another highly sought-after degree is computer science. “We do not have a great supply, but the demand is severe,” Page-Stadler says. “If we could triple (the number of graduates), we still wouldn’t meet the demand.”

UW-Green Bay’s computer science majors are also employed quickly. In their Graduate Follow-Up Survey, Class of 2010, nine Computer Science majors responded, and all nine were employed. “We never seem to have enough to meet the demand,” says Linda Peacock-Landrum, Director of Career Services for UW-Green Bay.

At St. Norbert College, Director of Career Services Mandy Nycz says there are typically more jobs posted for computer science majors than there are people to fill them. “Those candidates very often leave here with a job in hand,” she says.

Other fields are requiring technical knowledge as well. In health care, the emergence of information technology, electronic record-keeping and health care reform has created new career opportunities in bioinformatics, says Sachse. “There is a greater demand for record-keeping and electronic records,” he says. Insurance companies also increasingly rely on electronic record-keeping, and those with accounting degrees and actuarial education will be in high demand. “We have a large number of health insurers on the Highway 41 corridor that will need those kinds of workers.”

In the public sector, education degrees will be needed, Sachse says. “About a quarter of teachers in the state are over the age of 55,” he says, even considering recent teacher retirements. “We’re approaching a point where there’s going to be significant teacher retirements.”

Those same demographics will play out in police and fire departments. While a two-year degree is a typical hiring requirement, a four-year degree is preferred for advancement. “If you want to advance beyond that rank (of patrol), the expectation is that you have a four-year degree,” he says.

Many high-demand fields are hiring a broad range of degrees. The manufacturing and financial sectors are recruiting, especially in sales and marketing. Hiring managers are seeking a bachelor’s degree, but “we’ve had students across the board that have been hired in those positions,” says Peacock-Landrum.

Hiring for sales positions is strong at UW-Oshkosh as well. “Sales is an industry seeking lots and lots of students,” says Page-Stadler. Businesses looking for financial analysts or financial planners will look at those with a finance major, but “those employers are interested in any major.”

This is good news for liberal arts majors, who are finding it easier to get hired than in years past, when business majors may have been preferred. “While many companies will certainly look at business as a major, many will look at all majors,” says Nycz.

“That mentality has changed and evolved over the past three years,” Page-Stadler says. “It’s more about, ‘What did students do while obtaining a degree to be marketable?’”

Nycz agrees. She stresses the importance of internships. “If you can gain relevant experience in a field, that is going to make you more marketable.”

Sachse says one’s major doesn’t always correlate to one’s field. “What we generally assume is only about 40 percent of college graduates will hold a job that relates to their specific field of study,” he says. “It’s more of a credential that gets them in the door.”

For some fields in Northeast Wisconsin, the door is wide open.

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