When children are young, parents tell them that they can do anything they want to when they grow up, as long as they do the best job they can do. When those children land in college, parents change their tunes. Kids have learned to do the best they can do. Now it’s about having the best job they can have. Getting that job makes living in the jungle – that place graduates reach on the other side of the stage after picking up their diplomas – a lot easier.

Only 10 percent of students are employed immediately following graduation. Roughly 75 percent are employed within six months of leaving school. Those numbers could be better if students had the right degrees.

Experts from three of Oklahoma’s top universities know what those degrees are.

The common quality these degrees share is the placement of graduates in positions and fields that are in demand. Engineers design, make and manage complex things that keep the wheels of society rolling. There will never be a drop in demand for health care workers. And Americans rely on businesses more than any country on earth to provide the goods and services we need (and want). Even in today’s rough economy, business degrees reliably translate into jobs.

Engineering is consistently at the top of experts’ lists of in-demand degrees. As a field, engineering pays well and it’s resilient, almost recession-proof. Many new engineers are seeing higher salaries now than ever before.

“There’s been a robust and fairly sustained market for engineers, particularly for petroleum and geological engineering, which, for Oklahoma, is great. And for electrical and computer engineering. Any engineer that has the capability to work with technology, hardware and software development, is in a good spot,” says Nancy Mergler, senior vice president and provost at the University of Oklahoma.

As an occupation, engineering also has an advantage of being a field in which its practitioners is flexibility. Good schools make sure that students learn at least some aspects of the basic engineering principles that can be applied across any engineering disciplines.

The only thing hotter than an engineering degree is an engineering degree with an MBA stapled to it. To understand the science behind something and grasp the workings of the business where it’s applied – that’s gold to most employers, sources say.

Health Care
While the health care field often requires specialization, the field is also incredibly broad, offering opportunities to everybody with the right degrees and training – whether they’re speech therapists or neurologists. In fact, experts generally feel that health care related degrees and subsequent job opportunities are the most recession proof of all options.

“There’s a continuing market for individuals who are interested in health care related fields. Many of those students do need advanced degrees. Not all, but some. The nursing market, for example, is very strong,” says Mergler.

The nursing field is so hot that Oklahoma’s practically gone to war with Kansas and Texas to bring in the best nurses. As a result, those nursing salaries aren’t too bad. Once all that school gets paid off, it’s all gravy, experts intimate.

“Engineering and business are hot areas right now. Agriculture is doing well, too. But business and engineering are tops right now. The top business degree is accounting. There are a lot of companies that, after the whole Sarbanes-Oxley deal, need accountants and people who can work with auditors and watch the money. If students get degrees in one of those two fields, they probably won’t have any trouble finding employment,” says Pam Ehlers, Oklahoma State University’s director of career services.

Mergler notes that the demand for business students has softened a bit, but fully expects a turnaround.

“A couple of years ago, finance and accounting were really hot. There’s been a little bit of change that might have to do with the stock market. I fully expect them to recover. We can’t survive without people that are finance and marketing and management. We need those folks. That market will recover. This is just a temporary dip,” she says.

One thing business degrees share with engineering and health care degrees is that having one in hand means a graduate has trained specifically to work in that field. Unless a graduate plans on pursuing an academic career, the same can’t be said for liberal arts degrees, currently the least successful in the job market.

“Accounting is doing well. It’s one of the fields where you’re getting a degree to prepare to go to work in that field. Those are the ones that are doing well right now,” says helly HollySr, the University of Tulsa’s director of career services.

All is not lost for graduates with other degrees, though. Ehlers emphasizes that any student can improve his chance of employment by gathering work experience while in school.

“If you’re going to go major in history or philosophy and you’re not going to work and get some work experience while you’re going to school, it’s going to be extremely difficult for you to get any kind of professional job when you graduate,” she says.

Getting the job quickly is as important as becoming the job at all. Schools are getting more and more expensive. The average graduate drags $23,000 of loans into the jungle with him. Getting rid of them means finding that job. And that has everything to do with the degree a graduate holds. But a graduate has to want to use that degree, too.

“Fifty percent of graduates spend only one year in the job they take first. They leave because they don’t like it or want to try something else,” says Holly.

Still, it’s better to have a job to leave than to not have one at all.

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