A yawning gulf between new grad job expectations and reality

May 8, 2014, 5:45 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Most recent college graduates are just happy to have a job. But that euphoria wanes once the newly employed are in the workplace, new research finds, because most newbie hires expect to receive training but fewer than half actually do.

As a result, 46% of such employees believe they are underemployed and work in jobs where they don’t need a college degree, up from the 41% who felt the same way in last year’s survey. The 2014 College Graduate Employment survey, which is conducted annually by consulting firm Accenture, compares the experiences of recent graduates in the workplace with expectations of those preparing to enter the job market. The survey questioned about 1,000 students about to graduate this spring, and a similar number who graduated in 2012 and 2013.

Underscoring the turbulence of the job market, the survey found that only 46% of graduates from 2013 and 2012 were employed full-time, compared to 68% full-time workers from the prior two graduating classes.

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Even so, some 84% of 2014 graduates expect to land a job in their chosen field, although those expectations may be unduly sunny, notes Katherine Lavelle, managing director of Accenture’s Talent & Organization practice, who oversaw the study. Only 67% of graduates from the previous two years are working in their industry of choice, the survey found. So far 11% of the 2014 graduates have job offers. It was 16% for the class of 2013 at the same time last year.

“This is the most optimistic class in recent years,” Lavelle says. Graduates, she says, may be buoyed by improved jobs numbers recently, but they still face some uncertainties. Upcoming graduates are placing stock in job training because they intend to stay longer in their entry-level jobs.

“Some 56% of graduates say they want to stay in their first job for three or more years, which compares to 44% earlier,” Lavelle notes. “Training is a great tool. And it’s a major differentiator for good hires, and ranks up with salary and geographic location,” she says.

At the same time, there is a disconnect among employers, many of which no longer look at employees as lifetime investments in the company’s growth and future, but rather as temporary placements bound to move on. At the same time, many American companies complain that there is a skills gap between what they need for their businesses and the talent they are trying to hire.

In earlier decades, about 75% of such entry-level jobs required no more than a high school diploma, but that figure has dropped to 30% — and only about a third of those jobs pay more than $25,000, according to the National Governors Association, which launched an initiative last year to address education and training to prepare for the evolving labor market. Only about half of public high school graduates continue their education and receive a degree or workforce certificate, underscoring the importance of on-the-job training.

But the numbers are not encouraging. Some 52% of those surveyed by Accenture who graduated within the past two years reported receiving training in their first job out of college — even though 80% expected to receive it.

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This year’s job seekers are delving into career options earlier than ever. Three-quarters of this year’s graduates reported looking into the availability of jobs in their field before deciding on their college major. That was up from 68% of graduates in 2012 and 2013.

“We are seeing universities helping students to think more clearly about making career decisions earlier in their education, and that is a positive for both grads and their employers,” says Lavelle. College graduates listed human resources, customer service, and marketing and communications as their top choices of areas to work. Health care, education, and government were listed as top-choice industries.

“Although recent college graduates may feel ready to work,” says Lavelle, “they may not be prepared for the precise roles being offered. That is where employers should assume responsibility for further talent development.”

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