Field of study is major factor for success in early career

The professional careers of young people are linked to their level of qualification. In most cases having a qualification protects against unemployment and ensures higher pay. A report from the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies shows that the chosen field of study can also determine how successful a young person is in the early years of their career, and that those with vocational qualifications may have more success than those with a higher degree.

The fact that postgraduates in France with a doctoral thesis (PhD) in health face a 2% unemployment rate compared with a rate of 31% among young people without any higher-level qualification illustrates the extent to which a diploma can provide protection from unemployment. Between these two extremes, however, the professional position of young people is not automatically better with higher qualifications.

A report (in French, 80Kb PDF) published by the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE) in October 2010 explores which sectors are more attractive to employers and ensure better employment conditions after leaving education.

The study evaluates the first 10 years of a career through four criteria:

  • unemployment rate;
  • share of part-time jobs;
  • social class of the occupation;
  • median wage.

Qualifications are sorted into three categories illustrating various kinds of professional starts according to the field of study:

  • when qualifications lead to a tough start to a career;
  • when they allow acceptable conditions;
  • when they lead to promising starts.

A difficult start

National vocational qualifications (level 2) and general national vocational qualifications in service sector subjects and secretarial work, as well as some departments of the textile industry (such as leather and clothing), are likely to lead to a difficult start for young people in their chosen career. The unemployment rate is often above 20% in the first years of such a career (see table). Women are overrepresented in these fields of study, often have part-time jobs and earn little money (the median wage is around €1,100 per month). Moreover, a third of young people having a national vocational qualification (level 2) or a general national vocational qualification in trade and retail are likely to face underemployment (see table).

Qualifications in manufacturing lead to a more favourable future than those in services
    Share of women among the active population Rate of unemploy-ment (%)* Rate of part-time jobs (%) Share of managers and intermediate occupations Median wage (€/month)
No qualification 37 31 19 11 1,130
National vocational qualification (level 2), general national vocational qualification and certificate of general education Agriculture, fishery, forest 20 13 11 6 1,220
Food processing 17 14 9 5 1,240
Civil engineering 2 15 2 6 1,280
Textile industry, clothing, leather 58 27 19 3 1,080
Engineering industry 2 14 4 9 1,290
Electrical, electronic 3 15 6 14 1,300
Trade, sales 70 24 30 8 1,060
Finance, accounting 55 23 22 9 1,140
Secretarial work, communication 85 25 28 14 1,100
Tourism, hotel business 64 23 25 12 1,100
Hairdressing, beauty salon 92 20 24 3 1,040
National vocational qualification (level 3), paramedical diplomas Agriculture, fishery, forest 93 6 15 2 1,350
Food processing 22 6 9 10 1,190
Civil engineering 20 8 4 15 1,320
Textile industry, clothing, leather 6 5 2 16 1,370
Engineering industry 2 7 2 24 1,400
Electrical, electronic 2 9 2 32 1,410
Trade, sales 61 15 21 23 1,140
Finance, accounting 66 14 20 16 1,200
Secretarial work, communication 87 20 23 18 1,170
Tourism, hotel business 55 12 21 26 1,170
Hairdressing, beauty salon 92 8 15 5 1,100
Total of high school graduates 44 14 15 19 1,250

Notes: * As defined by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Bold lines highlight young graduates facing difficult employment conditions at the beginning of their careers.

Source: Martinelli and Prost (2010)

A promising start

However, some young people benefit from advantageous conditions from the beginning of their professional life. For example, less than 10% of young graduates with a qualification relevant to manufacturing are unemployed and their median wage is about €1,600 per month (Martinelli and Prost, 2010).

Graduates with a higher degree in science, law, economics and computer science have even better conditions. Like specialisms in retail, trade and accounting, the level of the qualification does make a difference. Graduates with a Bachelor of Arts degree in these fields are less likely to be unemployed than young people with a qualification in the same field but at a lower level (such as a national vocational qualification).

Graduates of engineering departments and business schools also enjoy good employment conditions. Their unemployment rate does not exceed 7% and the median wage is €2,300 per month (Martinelli and Prost, 2010).

Regardless of the level of their qualification, health care sector professionals (nurses, dentists and doctors) have easy access to the labour market, being relatively protected from unemployment. However, their salaries may vary considerably according to the level and the subject of study of their qualification. For example, PhD students in the health care sector benefit from the best conditions at the beginning of their careers, with their median wage being about €2,570 per month (Martinelli and Prost, 2010).

In between

However, a master’s degree in some subjects can lead to the same unemployment rate as a low level of vocational qualification. A number of fields of study lead to intermediate situations, with average median wages and unemployment rates as well as sometimes facing underemployment. Such fields of study and levels of diploma include vocational training qualifications (level 3) to master’s degrees in social sciences or literature. For example, many graduates in sociology, psychology and the arts can only get part-time work. This kind of student tends to be more susceptible to unemployment than young people with a vocational training qualification.


Throughout the study there is evidence that the level of qualification alone does not ensure good employment conditions during the first years of a young person’s career. The field of study is a major factor in determining the professional start of many young persons and some specialisations lead to sectors of the labour market where there is high demand for new entrants. In these sectors, possession of a qualification and the level of this qualification have a positive impact of the start of a young person’s career. However, some fields of study are focused on saturated markets where possession of a qualification does not ensure good employment conditions regardless of the level of the qualification.


Martinelli, D. and Prost, C. (2010), Le domaine d’études est déterminant pour les débuts de carrière (80Kb PDF), Insee Première, No. 1313, Insee, Amiens.

Sarah Mongourdin-Denoix, HERA

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