Public service is cool again

Peace Corps and others see ’60s-style interest from recent grads.

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    Lillian Cross, a Colgate University graduate, reads information about the Peace Corps at an open house in Boston.
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Prashanth Gubbala always expected to help save the world – just not right away.

That’s why last year he landed his first out-of-college job with the boutique investment-banking firm Canaccord Adams in Boston. He worked 90-hour weeks. He targeted his climb up the corporate ladder as a way to get the financial means and influence to help others.

But when he got a pink slip – along with other new hires – and ran into a family acquaintance he’d met at her going-away-to-the-Peace-Corps party, he was primed to follow his dream, too.

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In investment banking, “you’re not doing anything that contributes to the world,” says Mr. Gubbala, who joined the Peace Corps and hopes to consult and teach in Eastern Europe. “This was my opportunity to change and get out.”

Gubbala is joining tens of thousands of recent graduates opting to work in public service, part of a generational shift similar to the one seen after President Kennedy called for service and began the Peace Corps in 1961. The Peace Corps, which funnels nearly 8,000 Americans a year to underdeveloped countries for two-year volunteer stints, has seen a 24 percent surge in applications in the first half of 2009 compared with the same period two years ago. Its stateside corollary AmeriCorps and Teach for America, which places college graduates in K-12 teaching positions across the country, have seen even bigger increases. (See chart.)

Though the long recession is a major catalyst for the rising interest in public-service jobs – traditionally secure, if low-paid, opportunities open to young people – that’s not this generation’s only motivation, say experts who study the subject.

“This kind of perfect storm hit, in a good way, with the economy and Obama [and] the tarnishing of the for-profit business world,” says Rob Reich, a professor of political science at Stanford University in California. “The incentives were just weighted so heavily toward management, consulting. [Now] students see doing public service opportunities as an actual profession ... something that is high-status.”

The boom has momentum, thanks in part to President Obama’s emphasis on community service. Mr. Obama called for public service during his campaign and, as president, signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which will triple the size of AmeriCorps to 250,000 annual positions by 2017. In the three days around his inauguration, applications to the Peace Corps nearly tripled over the same period in 2008.

These economic and social currents are changing the directions students take.

After graduating in May, Christian Seale of Brown University in Providence, R.I., had hoped to return to investment bank Goldman Sachs, where he’d interned for two summers, and then attend the Harvard Business School, where he’d already been accepted. But those plans began to change last fall when a dean sent along a note with information about applying for a Fulbright grant to teach English abroad. Then job prospects dwindled with the debacle in the financial industry. “When the financial crisis hit, it kind of solidified my decision for me,” the Spencer, Mass., native says.

Mr. Seale, who speaks Spanish but has never been to Latin America, will spend a year in Barranquilla, Colombia, teaching university students. Then, it’s off to the Harvard Business School, unless he can launch his real dream: a gym for urban youth without access to exercise facilities. “That’s my passion, fitness,” he says.

Kathy Choi, a graduate of Duke Uni-versity in Durham, N.C., had looked into working in business after graduation, until canceled interviews and nixed company campus visits made her reassess. Now, she’s working as a public school administrator.

“A lot of people [at Duke University] are more open-minded about nontraditional career paths,” says Ms. Choi of Torrance, Calif. There’s “lots of empathy and understanding about people’s situations.”

Even a job offer isn’t stopping some graduates’ move to service. Daniel Carroll of Harvard deferred an offer from the Boston Consulting Group in San Francisco. Instead, the human biology and computer science graduate will be in Denver, teaching physical science for at least two years to eighth graders, under the Teach for America program. “I wasn’t really quite sure what end I wanted to put [my] skills to,” he says. He’s found one already for his new students: “I can make savvy PowerPoints.”

The uptick in public-service interest and activism is similar to the early 1960s – with a twist, says Doug McAdam, a sociology professor at Stanford who has studied both the Freedom Summer of 1964, when college students traveled to Mississippi to register African-American voters, and the first years of Teach for America. Then, times were prosperous. Knowing that job opportunities were quite good, baby boomers could pursue public service without worrying about compromising their long-term career goals, he says. That’s not the case today, he adds.

There’s another connection with the 1960s. It’s the baby boomers who joined federal service in the ’60s who are now leaving vacancies for new job-seekers, according to Tim McManus, vice president of education and outreach for the Partnership for Public Service.

Roughly one-third of federal employees – 600,000 – are eligible for retirement in the next four years, he says. “This is again a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

An increasing number of young people are interested in working for the government – and slightly more actually are – according to annual surveys by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. (See chart.)

That trend may reverse once the economy recovers, says Mr. McAdam. “If people see great opportunities in the private sector, some people are going to seize those opportunities even if they have values in line with service.”

Switching from the private to the public sector involves sacrifice. Mr. Seale is trading what would have been bonuses and a comfortable New York social life for a $900-a-month stipend in Colombia. “[It] isn’t incredible, but it isn’t poverty by any means,” he says.

Mr. Carroll estimates that he’s giving up $20,000 to $30,000 in annual salary by choosing teaching over consulting now. But he still says that now is the right time to teach.

Waiting to teach after a few years as a consultant and getting an MBA would be “a bit silly,” he says, based on how much pay he would then be giving up. “The opportunity cost [of teaching] will really be a lot greater later in my life.”

Gubbala, by contrast, is looking forward to the Peace Corps largely because of what he’ll be able to give up. He wants to write letters home, not e-mails, and hopes he won’t be able to see Facebook.

“I’m kind of looking forward to getting away from all of this,” he says at a coffee shop just down the street from his old firm. One more perk: “not having a cellphone, hopefully.”

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