The college Class of 2012 is in for a rude welcome to the world of work.
A weak labor market already has left half of young college graduates either jobless or underemployed in positions that don't fully use their skills and knowledge.
Young adults with bachelor's degrees are increasingly scraping by in lower-wage jobs -- waiter or waitress, bartender, retail clerk or receptionist, for example -- and that's confounding their hopes that a degree would pay off despite higher tuition and mounting student loans.
An analysis of government data conducted for the Associated Press lays bare the highly uneven prospects for holders of bachelor's degrees.
Opportunities for college graduates vary widely.
While there's strong demand in science, education and health fields, arts and humanities flounder. Median wages for those with bachelor's degrees are down from 2000, hit by technological changes that are eliminating midlevel jobs such as bank tellers. Most future job openings are projected to be in lower-skilled positions such as home health aides, who can provide personalized attention as the U.S. population ages.
Taking underemployment into consideration, the job prospects for holders of bachelor's degrees fell last year to the lowest level in more than a decade.
"I don't even know what I'm looking for," says Michael Bledsoe, 23, who described months of fruitless job searches as he served customers at a Seattle coffeehouse. Bledsoe graduated in 2010 with a degree in creative writing.
Initially hopeful that his college education would create opportunities, Bledsoe languished for three months before finally taking a job as a barista, a position he has held for the last two years.
His situation highlights a widening but little discussed labor problem. Perhaps more than ever, the choices that young adults make earlier in life -- level of schooling, academic field and training, where to attend college, how to pay for it -- are having long-lasting financial impact.
"You can make more money on average if you go to college, but it's not true for everybody," says Harvard economist Richard Freeman, noting the growing risk of a debt bubble with total U.S. student loan debt surpassing $1 trillion. "If you're not sure what you're going to be doing, it probably bodes well to take some job, if you can get one, and get a sense first of what you want from college."
Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University who analyzed the numbers, said that many people with bachelor's degrees face a double whammy of rising tuition and poor job outcomes. "Simply put, we're failing kids coming out of college," he said.
Last year, about 1.5 million, or 53.6 percent, of those younger than 25 who hold bachelor's degrees were jobless or underemployed, the highest share in at least 11 years. In 2000, the share was at a low of 41 percent, before the dot-com bust erased job gains for college graduates in the fields of telecommunications and information technology.
Broken down by occupation, young college graduates were heavily represented in jobs that require a high school diploma or less.
In the last year, they were more likely to be employed as waiters, waitresses, bartenders and food-service helpers than as engineers, physicists, chemists and mathematicians combined (100,000 versus 90,000). There were more working in office-related jobs such as receptionist or payroll clerk than in all computer professional jobs (163,000 versus 100,000). More also were employed as cashiers, retail clerks and customer representatives than engineers (125,000 versus 80,000).
According to government projections released last month, only three of the 30 occupations with the largest projected number of job openings by 2020 will require a bachelor's degree or higher to fill the position -- teachers, college professors and accountants. Most job openings are in occupations such as retail sales, fast food and truck driving, jobs that aren't easily replaced by computers.
College grads who majored in zoology, anthropology, philosophy, art history and humanities were among the least likely to find jobs geared to their education; those with nursing, teaching, accounting or computer science degrees were among the most likely.