Students Picking Major by Matching Passion, Demand

Students Picking Major by Matching Passion, Demand
July 7, 2010/Detroit Free Press

More students preparing for economic shift

By Lori Higgins

Competition is so fierce for the physician assistant program at Western Michigan University that only 4% of the more than 900 people who applied for the master's-level program got in last year.

In fact, nearly all health-related programs statewide are experiencing surges in popularity.

Programs that prepare students for computer science engineering careers are equally popular, with about 264 job openings a year for computer software engineers, who can net an average of $38 an hour.

At the University of Michigan, for instance, enrollment in computer science is up 73% since 2007, while enrollment in computer science engineering is up 60%.

Experts say it's a sign young people aren't just following their passions; they're matching their dream jobs with majors that will prepare them for the high-demand, high-wage jobs of the future.

"It's like job security," Katherine Skorupa, a recent graduate of Saginaw Valley State University, said of her degree in nursing. Projections show there will be about 3,000 job openings a year for registered nurses, with salaries averaging around $30 an hour.

Choosing the right career is crucial at a time when 62% of students attending public four-year universities graduate with some debt -- and 12% graduate owing more than $30,500, according to the College Board.

Zeroing in on the hot jobs

Personal finance advisers. Financial analysts. Insurance sales agents. These are among the business-related careers that are, and will remain, in high demand in Michigan as the state's economic recovery takes center stage.

"Successful businesspeople are always looking ahead, planning ahead, thinking about how to attract that next generation of entry-level employees," said Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

They don't have to look far. Business is the top area of concentration that Michigan college students are getting degrees in, and it continues to grow. But students are showing increasing interest in other areas, too, such as computer science.

On Michigan's Hot 50 -- a list of the high-demand, high-wage careers through 2016 -- technology jobs requiring computer science skills are six of the top 20 fastest-growing jobs. Fewer students received degrees in computer science between 2004 and 2009 -- likely a result of the downturn in interest that occurred when the dot-com industry collapsed in the early 2000s.

But enrollments have been picking up in recent years -- even surging at schools such as the University of Michigan, where Jason Bornhorst received a degree last year. He pursued a career in computer science engineering because of a longtime interest in computers and because it let him see his ideas come to life in a flash. Entering a field flush with jobs was a nice bonus.

"The demand ... couldn't be higher," said Bornhorst, who is working at Mobiata, a company that makes travel applications for smartphones. His U-M training paid off even before he graduated: He and two U-M classmates created and sold a successful app that encourages users to do good deeds daily.

Personal finance advisers are at the top of the list of high-demand business jobs. Studley said he can only speculate that the economy is helping to drive the demand.

"There are a lot of young people who have just seen parents and grandparents go through some very challenging, very difficult situations regarding finances," Studley said. Those young people, he said, may be thinking, "I can do something that would be meaningful and really helpful to people."

As Michigan transitions from a manufacturing-driven economy, in which even a high school diploma wasn't a necessity, to one that is knowledge-driven, some type of postsecondary education is crucial.

Students increasingly are considering job prospects when choosing careers, something Jeanine Bartholomew sees when she conducts orientation sessions as director of academic services for the College of Health and Human Services at Western Michigan University. She said more students are switching to health-related majors.

"The number of students we have shifting over ... once they've done their homework and done their thinking, is phenomenal," Bartholomew said.

What the list doesn't show

Meanwhile, degrees in areas where the job market isn't robust -- such as education -- are declining. Degrees in education are down 23.6% from 2004 to 2009.

But even though the list of Michigan's hottest jobs is a good barometer of the kind of skills students need to be successful now and for the next six years, experts say that list will fluctuate. Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future, said that's why it's important for people to have some type of postsecondary training. He said he's discouraged by a recent national report by the Brookings Institution in Washington that found that people between ages 25 and 34 have earned degrees at a smaller rate than those between 35 and 44.

"I am more concerned about a general skill shortage than I am about a shortage in specific areas," Glazer said.

And that list doesn't reflect developing industries. One such area is green jobs, said Steven Bennett, executive director of the Lansing-based Prima Civitas Foundation, a nonprofit economic engine focused on long-term economic transformation for Michigan.

He said Michigan has about 109,000 green jobs right now. The jobs include new ways of using food and other by-products in nontraditional ways, such as how Ford is using by-products to build car seats.

Tech hot on recruiters' lists

For now, technology is among the rulers.

Wayne Thibodeau, director of career services at Oakland University, said most of the calls he gets from recruiters are about information technology jobs. Farnam Jahanian, chair of U-M's computer science and engineering department, attributes the growth to advances in computer science that brought the discipline to other areas -- such as sciences, business, art and cultures -- in ways "that were barely imaginable a decade ago.

"The demand goes far beyond the high-tech industry," Jahanian said. "Our students are essentially being hired by every sector of our economy."

Jobs include developing next-generation video games and building models for predicting the spread of the next flu epidemic.

Learning what's important

Katherine Skorupa graduated this spring with a degree in nursing from Saginaw Valley State University. It's a degree program experiencing rapid growth as universities try to crank out enough nurses to fill the demand.

Saginaw Valley, for instance, has seen its enrollment of nursing students rise from 245 in 2005 to 362 in 2009.

Skorupa first became passionate about nursing at age 5. Despite that, she pursued physical therapy as a major before coming back to her first love.

"I've always had that appreciation for helping people," said Skorupa of Rochester Hills, who learned last week that she had passed the nursing exam required to receive her license.

"There's an overall reward that you get, and that's probably the most important thing."

Contact LORI HIGGINS: 313-222-6651

Posted on Wednesday, July 07, 2010 (Archive on Monday, January 01, 0001)
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