This year is on course to be a tough one for college grads looking to enter the job market.
Even more so than last year: A study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), which tracks recruitment data, shows a 1.7 percent decline in the salaries offered for entry-level positions when compared with this time last year. The Class of 2010 can expect an average offer of $47,673, compared with $48,515 in 2009.
But as it turns out, there are careers where the median starting salary is above the norm. To identify which occupations offer the brightest fiscal futures for the Class of 2010, ForbesWoman teamed up with PayScale, a leader in compensation-data collection. PayScale's research looked at data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the U.S. Census Bureau, and their own user-supplied salary data of starting salaries for employees with bachelor's degrees from more than 2,000 colleges and universities nationwide.
Engineering careers on top
If you've trained for a career in engineering, you stand to be well compensated right out of the gate. The median starting salary for people with a bachelor's degree in this field is $53,400. It is the top-paying field on our list.
Engineering careers offer a range of more than 25 specific fields that include environmental engineering, which deals with the prevention and control of environmental health hazards, and civic engineering, which involves city building structures, road systems, and facilities.
Many engineers are now also involved in the business of going green, an area of the job market that is on the rise. The BLS says that while job openings are expected to grow at a national average of 11 percent over the next decade, engineering prospects will be excellent in certain specialties, specifically biomedical engineering, which should experience a 72 percent growth in the same time period.
Doing the math for higher salaries
While all of the jobs we've measured for salary are bachelor's-level careers, it's interesting to note that the top 10 best-paying entry-level occupations are math-heavy. "These top 10 fields are occupations in which we see the practical application of math," says Al Lee, director of quantitative analysis at PayScale. Jobs "where you take mathematic computing and turn it into something useful are jobs where we're seeing high starting salaries," he adds.
Also in the top 10 are the math- and tech-heavy occupations of information technology (number four, with a $46,000 median annual starting salary), biotech and pharmaceuticals (number five, at $43,900), insurance (number seven, at $40,800), and business and finance (number nine, at $40,200).
A tough job market
Chelsea Mouta, a 22-year-old 2010 grad from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., is both excited and nervous to get into the job market. A business major fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, Mouta hopes to get into international marketing.
"My biggest concern is that many people from the class of 2009 are still unemployed," she says. With overwhelming pools of applicants for few jobs, many 2010 graduates are happy to accept any job offer that comes their way, often landing them much lower salaries than they would have hoped for in a more flush economy.
Mouta hopes to see an entry level salary of around $45,000--as she says, "just something that is livable in a major city." But with a marketing career offering a median starting salary of $37,500 and landing at number 13 on our list of best-paying careers, she may find herself disappointed. Still, she says she has been trying to avoid forming too many expectations with regards to salary "because it is such a tough job market, and it's only my first job."
Starting in the middle
Most of the midlevel occupations (like marketing) on our list are often considered gray- or blue-collar professions. Health care (number 11, with a $39,100 median starting salary), human resources (number 14, at $37,300), and education (number 19, at $33,400) fall into this area. Also included is transportation services, (number 15, at $37,100), a broad occupational group that includes air-traffic controllers, commercial pilots, ship captains, and transportation inspectors. These "educated service jobs" tend to pay salaries that make for comfortable but not opulent lifestyles.
In looking at where certain occupations fall on our list, Lee points out that the lower-salaried occupations tend to be those where bachelor's recipients end up after failed job searches in their professions of choice. Retail, last on our list (number 29, at $27,400), hires employees without high school diplomas as well as college graduates. "If anyone can do a job," says Lee, "the pay will be low."
Weighing the options
Meanwhile, the job market has other variables to consider. "More profitable, thriving companies within an industry will pay higher salaries for what seems like the same job," says Lee. "For example, an administrative assistant at Microsoft will be paid much more than they might [be] at a small business or a business that isn't in a period of growth." Administrative and clerical work ranks number 26, at $30,200.
Position, industry, or company? It's hard to say which factor is the most important to consider when searching for a well-paying career out of college. Regardless, "It's best to be in a position where your role is one of revenue as opposed to overhead," says Lee. "Revenue-generating positions are rewarded [with] much higher salaries than those considered an overhead expense, no matter how crucial their role is in the day-to-day."