Underemployed grads: Suffering from college major remorse?

July 18, 2012, 1:22 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Everyone keeps crossing their fingers for a new burst of hiring. And for those just starting out, a crystal ball would certainly help steer them on the right path.

But fortune tellers and fairy godmothers seem absent from the job-forecasting business, leaving some recent college grads regretting their choice of studies and wishing they had prepared for a “more practical” profession.

Regrets aside, there are still some structured paths that will almost assuredly lead directly to a paid job. Elsbeth Centola of Bend, Ore., for example, is on a trajectory to finish veterinary school in three years and land a veterinarian position where the median salary now is about $82,000 a year.

Others, like aspiring teacher Sarah Wagner of Orange County, Calif., settled on the seemingly practical, as well. But the route to a full-time teaching job is far from linear. The rocky and uncertain job market means she may spend several years accumulating part-time experience and certifications as she continues to search for permanent employment.

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Both women had the advantage of knowing which fields they were interested in, and began to steer their careers in those directions years ago.

“When I was in high school, I began researching what it takes to be a vet,” says 24-year-old Centola. “I had a goal, and I volunteered with animals to help build up my experience.”

Wagner, who graduated last year from California State-Fullerton with a degree in English, knew from a young age that she wanted to be a teacher. “Both my parents are teachers, so I grew up in that environment.”

While she loves animals, Centola also expects to step into a well-paying job when she graduates from Oregon State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine because veterinarian ranks are expected to grow by double-digit percentages in the next decade.

For hints of where solid employment might be in the future, the federal government studies job growth in hundreds of careers, some requiring bachelor’s and higher-level degrees and some that do not. Nearly five-dozen job types with high-growth prospects were singled out in the “Occupational Outlook Handbook,” from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Labor.

The newly updated handbook lists professions including veterinarian, audiologist, industrial psychologist, and physician’s assistant among those projected to grow 29% or more between 2010 and 2020. Those jobs require years of advanced training — as do the nursing and other medical professions — but others do not. Those include athletic trainers, brick masons, dental hygienists, opticians, pile-driver operators, and software developers.

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Focusing on those fields is not a last-minute career saver, warns Gary Steinberg, a spokesman for Bureau of Labor Statistics. “It is really guidance for the 12-year-old, not even for those in high school,” he says. “It tells you the fastest-growing jobs in 10 years.

“But there’s a gap. We have no short-term projections that can tell someone what jobs will be available at the end of the year.”

That makes it hard for a student or graduate to pivot if his or her field falls prey to a sudden drop in market demand or rapid technology changes. That sentiment accounts for some of the career remorse recent college graduates registered in a new nationwide survey by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

More than one-third of the 444 recent graduates who responded said if they had a do-over, they would have selected majors that connect directly to specific jobs, like nursing or social work.

But only a tiny number of recent graduates regretted going to college, even as the debate continues over whether a four-year degree is worth the investment, particularly considering the significant debt many students assume. About 75% of those responding to the Rutgers survey reported they have held at least one full-time job since they graduated, according to Cliff Zukin, one of the report’s authors.

More than 80% of those sampled have gone on to a second job after college, says Zukin. Even so, 42% said it was a “job to get you by,” and 36% categorized their current job as “a stepping stone to a career.” A meager 22%, Zukin pointed out, labeled their current job as “a career.”

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“But graduates are pretty pragmatic,” notes Zukin. Slightly over 50% of recent graduates depend financially on their parents or relatives, with one-third living with parents or receiving rent or mortgage assistance, according to the survey. A smaller group receives money for food, health care, college loans, or car payments from parents or relatives.

In California, Wagner continues to live at home, and says that makes her less stressed than she would be otherwise. Wagner’s mother Nancy says, “I’m probably bothered by it more.”

But Sarah Wagner said that she is using her time well. She earned her state teaching credential to teach English and is enrolled in substitute teacher training. “Many of my friends who graduated before me are still substitute teachers, ” she says. “And I don’t anticipate getting a job in the next year or two.”

Still, she says, “I would get the same degree. I want to teach in middle school, and I’m hoping that the economy will get better and that a lot of teachers will retire and create openings.”

Centola is confident as well, but for different reasons. “People are more likely to take their animal to the doctor,” she says, “than they are to take themselves to the doctor.”