Public service is cool again
Peace Corps and others see ’60s-style interest from recent grads.
Prashanth Gubbala always expected to help save the world – just not right away.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
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.