Every year in May and June, scenes like this unfold across the country.
Students wearing big smiles shake the hands of their professors, as proud family and friends look on. This scene took place earlier this month, at a departmental graduation ceremony for the University of Minnesota's biomedical engineering program.
The biomedical engineering program combines study of the human body with training in engineering. In past years, many students have landed jobs in the medical device industry.
But this year, the path to employment has been a bit bumpier.
Laine Bretzke, 22, has lined up a paid internship at American Medical Systems, but is disappointed not to have scored a new job. Still, she doesn't lament her four years of intense studies. She thinks medical device companies will come knocking as the economy improves -- and as the device makers assess the impact of the health care overhaul passed by Congress.
"I think as soon as they figure that out, we're all going to get the associate position jobs, they're going to be hiring more, they're going to be expanding more," Bretzke said. "But for right now we're holding our breath."
Bretzke and her fellow jobless graduates should take heart. In a speech to the graduating seniors, department chair Bob Tranquillo trumpeted some encouraging trends on their side.
"There was a report released this year from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and their projection is that biomedical engineers will be the number one growth rate job in the next ten years," Tranquillo said. "So hang in there, if you don't have a job yet."
The nation's 20 fastest growing occupations straddle a wide range of industries. They include biomedical engineers, network systems analysts, dental hygienists, and veterinary technicians. But most share this trait: employers for those occupations will expect some college experience, ranging from an associate's degree to a PhD, depending on the occupation.
The fastest growing jobs have been tilting increasingly in favor of workers with higher education. That will continue, state labor market analyst Steve Hine said.
Such high demand for skilled workers is explained partly by the fact that technology and health care are growing in importance for the economy, Hine said. That creates a robust need for workers with advanced skills in those areas.
In addition, an increasing amount of low-skill work is now automated-- performed by robots instead of people.
But education does more than help workers land jobs. It also helps them keep their jobs.
The recession has put this point into sharp relief. Striking differences emerge if you slice the national unemployment rate by educational level.
"It was just over 10 percent for those with a high school degree, compared to less than 5 percent for those with college or more," Hine said.
For those who never finished high school, the unemployment rate is almost triple the number for college grads.
But you don't have to be out of work to suffer the drawbacks of an inadequate education.
Just ask Vaneka Humphreys.
"I'm a single mom, and I had to learn the hard way that education is key to everything," said Humphreys, of St. Paul.
Humphreys dropped out of high school in the 11th grade. At 34, she wants to stop cycling through low-wage, dead-end jobs, including her stints in nursing homes.
She believes getting a GED will help break the cycle and is taking preparing for the test at Neighborhood House in St. Paul. Her courses include geometry with which she often struggles but is committed to learning.
Humphreys said her lack of a high school diploma has locked her out of many good jobs. A few years ago she did land a high paying gig at a local factory. She made $25 an hour, but operating heavy power tools on an assembly line punished her body, forcing to her to leave the plant because of carpal tunnel syndrome. Thick scars snake from her palms to her wrists.
On top of that, Humphreys said long hours kept her away too much from her three kids.
"You can't see your family," she said. "I saw the people that I worked with more than I saw my children."
Once her injuries heal, Humphrey plans to pursue another job at a nursing home to pay the bills. But her ultimate goal is to train to be a nurse.
She thinks it will give her financial stability -- and set a model for her 16-year-old son, whom she's told of her struggle to earn a living without a high school diploma.
"I said, 'you're old enough to realize that mom is jumping from job to job because I didn't have an education,' and I tell him 'I don't want you to struggle like I'm doing now.' You can't get the good jobs."
In the future, the good jobs won't be the only ones out of reach for those lacking a high school diploma. Even the low-skill jobs could be a stretch. Experts say globalization is concentrating more of the high-skilled work in the United States, pushing low-skilled work to other parts of the world.
State economist Tom Stinson said high school dropouts will feel the squeeze.
"People who haven't gotten that diploma will find themselves doomed to compete against the low wage workers of the world," Stinson said. "And there are a lot of low wage workers out there now."
In Minnesota, the education trends are ominous for Minnesota's future workforce. The demographic groups expected to grow the most are also the least likely to finish high school.
Low graduation rates for African-Americans, Latinos, and American-Indians point to and frequent unemployment and meager incomes -- the life of struggle Vaneka Humphreys described.
Because a workforce that's short on education would be bad for Minnesota, a key ingredient to the state's prosperity is at stake, according to Steve Hine, the state labor market analyst.
"That's been our advantage over the decades -- a relatively highly educated workforce translates into better career options, higher standards of living," Hine said.
Minnesota has its work cut out for it. The state has to ensure the coming workforce has sufficient education. But that's not enough. It also needs to make sure the much bigger, existing workforce has the right schooling.
Stinson said that means re-training workers whose skills are no longer in demand -- either because of technological advances or the recession.
"The skills needed in the workforce are going to be changing and changing more rapidly than they have in the past," he said.
The recession is accelerating the retraining process for workers like April Hanson. She lost her job at the auto parts manufacturer TRW Automotive in Winona about a year and a half ago.
Many of Hanson's friends and family also were laid off from TRW, including her husband, mother, and father. Sitting in the Student Center of Minnesota State College Southeast Technical in Winona (http://www.southeastmn.edu/index.aspx) where she now takes classes, Hanson waves to many of her old pals as they pass by.
"If I weren't laid off, I might not have gone to school," said Hanson, 33. "I'm definitely here with a lot of people I used to work with.
Hanson is enrolled in a two-year degree program to become an administrative assistant. She said the recession is forcing her to retool sooner than expected.
"I might've thought of going in this direction at some point," Hanson said. "It just would have been more later than sooner."
For many workers, that's likely to be the legacy of the Great Recession.