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Great Expectations: Survey Finds New Grads Have High Hopes on First Job

Despite spending most of their college years at the depths of the Great Recession, new graduates have high expectations of their earning power. About 40 percent said they expect a starting salary of $50,000 to $75,000 for their first job out of college.

April 19, 2012

The Class of 2012, soon to be spilling out of colleges and universities and applying for jobs, has high expectations for their career prospects.

In a new joint study by the website Experience and an employee rewards and recognition software company Achievers, this new batch of millennials is shown to be career-minded, loyal, brand-savvy and likely to know from the get-go at which company they want to work. Further, they're most likely to simply pick up their smartphone and apply for a job online at that company's website.

And apparently money isn't everything to new graduates. Even though the Class of 2012 collectively is graduating with more debt than ever from student loans, 54 percent said career advancement opportunities were more important than salary, according to the study, which is in its third year.

Despite spending most of their college years at the depths of the Great Recession, new graduates have high expectations of their earning power. About 40 percent said they expect a starting salary of $50,000 to $75,000 for their first job out of college.

According to an annual survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, new grads may be aiming a bit high. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based NACE's April 2012 Salary Survey report—the first report on salaries for the Class of 2012—shows the overall median starting salary for a bachelor's degree graduate has risen 4.5 percent to $42,569 for the Class of 2012 from the final median salary of $40,735 for the Class of 2011.

"The overall median salary increase is the result of gains throughout most sectors," says Marilyn Mackes, NACE executive director. "Even in those sectors that showed decreases in median starting salaries, the dips were very slight."

Education and communications majors are seeing the most significant increases to their median salaries over last year. Graduates with education degrees are entering the work force with a median salary of $37,423, 4.5 percent higher than the $35,828 earned by members of the Class of 2011.

Hiring of graduates is up as well and is improving. NACE actually revised its figures upward in April, showing that businesses expect to hire 10.2 percent more graduates this year.

Razor Suleman, founder and chairman of San Francisco-based Achievers, said the study also uncovered a disconnect between statistics and reality when it comes to millennials. Twenty-two percent of respondents expect to stay with their first employer more than 10 years.

"According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, they stay 18 months on average" in a job, Suleman says. "But that's not what they're telling us their intent is. They're entering this relationship with their employer, and on average they're telling us they want to stay for 4.7 years."

Knowing what this new generation of workers wants vs. what they do in the workplace is an opportunity for companies to change their approach to millennials, Suleman says. Most companies tend to be stuck in the past, using antiquated notions of performance review and recognition that don't cut it with Gen Y workers, Suleman says. For example, a gold watch after 25 years of service means nothing to them.

"Gen Y grew up being praised, getting gold stars, getting trophies just for participating," Suleman says. "When they enter the workforce, they're not going to change; companies need to. If you want to keep them engaged in a workplace, feedback and recognition on a weekly basis is paramount. Of the nearly 8,000 respondents to our study, 84 percent said that is what they wanted."

Suleman adds that employer branding has never been more important to the recruiting process. The study notes that 87 percent said they would apply for their first jobs at a company website. "These students already know who you are. You need to fish where the fish are biting, which is online."

Susan Hauser is a Portland, Oregon-based freelance writer. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.