Sat, Mar 05, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Recession turns college graduates on to public service jobs

By Catherine Rampell  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

If Alison Sadock had finished college before the financial crisis, she probably would have done something corporate. Maybe a job in retail, or finance, or brand management at a big company — the kind of work her oldest sister, who graduated in the economically effervescent year of 2005, does at PepsiCo.

“You know, a normal job,” Sadock says.

However, she graduated in a deep recession in the spring of 2009 when jobs were scarce. Instead of the merchandising career she had imagined, she landed in public service, working on behalf of the sickest children in the US.

Sadock is part of a cohort of young college graduates who ended up doing good because the economy did them wrong.

As job hunts became tough after the crisis, anecdotal evidence suggested that more young people started to consider public service. Exactly how big that shift was is now becoming clear: In 2009 alone, 16 percent more young college graduates worked for the federal government than in the previous year and 11 percent more for nonprofit groups, according to an analysis by the New York Times of data from the American Community Survey of the US Census Bureau. A smaller US Labor Department survey showed that the share of educated young people in these jobs continued to rise last year.

“It’s not uncommon for me to hear of over 100 applications for a nonprofit position, sometimes many more than that, and many more Ivy League college graduates applying than before,” said Diana Aviv, chief executive of Independent Sector, a trade group for nonprofits. “Some of these people haven’t been employed for a while and are happy to have something, but once they’re there, they’ve recalibrated and reoriented themselves toward public service.”

It is not clear, though, whether a different starting point will truly “recalibrate” these workers’ long-term career aspirations — that is, whether their newfound paths will stick, or if they will jump to more lucrative careers when jobs are more plentiful.

Renewed interest in public service is visible across the country. Applications for AmeriCorps positions nearly tripled to 258,829 last year from 91,399 in 2008. The number of applicants for Teach for America climbed 32 percent last year, to a record 46,359. Organizations like Harvard’s Center for Public Interest Careers have been overwhelmed — and overjoyed — with the swelling demand from talented 20-somethings.

Several factors probably contributed to this phenomenon. Perhaps US President Barack Obama indeed made public service “cool,” as he had promised during his presidential campaign. Some experts say millennials — those who grew up in the 1990s or the 21st century — are unusually big-hearted, maybe because of the community service requirements they had in school.

“The millennial generation is a generation that is just more interested in making a difference than making a dollar,” said Max Stier, the president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group that advises government recruiting efforts.

Indeed, the number of educated young people working in public service jobs had been rising ever so slightly since the turn of the millennium. The sudden surge in 2009, though, suggests that the absence of traditional private-sector jobs forced many of the country’s best and brightest into lower-paying, emotionally rewarding work.

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