Public service is cool again
Peace Corps and others see ’60s-style interest from recent grads.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.”