Graduating to public service - is it affordable?

It's the season of commencements, and of career choices. Accept a government or nonprofit job at $40,000 a year, or become a management consultant and earn $100,000? Increasingly, public-spirited graduates of top colleges and policy schools are opting for the money.

In a tight labor market, public and nonprofit agencies are having difficulty attracting and retaining qualified professionals. From the military to the Securities and Exchange Commission, from urban schools to day-care providers, employers face steep challenges in fielding staffs capable of addressing their important public missions. Even at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, one-third of my classmates plan on entering the private sector next year.

The reasons are clear. Not only do jobs in public service typically pay far less; government has also suffered a dramatic loss of respect over recent decades. Perceived to be inefficient and ineffective, many service professions are struggling despite the growth of nonprofit entities as a partial substitute for government. Nonprofit and public employers who offer salaries well below those available elsewhere can't depend on worthy organizational missions to attract young employees. A two-year Kennedy School degree costs more than $60,000, and the average graduate accrues some $30,000 in loan debt. For many, idealism can't compete with the reality of student loans, combined with expectations of starting a family or simply living in a high-cost metropolitan area. Public service involves sacrifice, but self-sacrifice alone won't induce the supply of public servants to meet the demand for their skills.

A sense of disillusionment, even guilt, troubles many choosing the private route. Those who pursue public service often see their passion diluted by resignation. While a certain core of exceptionally dedicated or affluent young professionals will always choose the public path, for the balance of well-educated idealists glaring marketplace disparities can be a deterrent.

Some responsibility lies with public and nonprofit employers. Beyond improving workplace environments and aiming to provide private-caliber training and support, they should become more aggressively savvy in recruiting - starting earlier each year instead of allowing consulting firms to woo students first. And financial incentives for people entering the public sector should be a priority. Taxpayers should agree to finance more competitive salaries to attract sufficient numbers of high-quality government workers. Finally, philanthropy can help narrow the disparity in private versus nonprofit salaries. Donors to organizations must recognize that, as in business, talented staff is worth paying for.

*Josiah H. Brown is a master of public policy student at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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