By Catherine Rampell
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.
But 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 America’s sickest children.
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 considered 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 U.S. Census Bureau. A smaller 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 have nearly tripled to 258,829 in 2010 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 these phenomena. Perhaps President 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 numbers 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, if psychically rewarding, work.
Since the recession began three years ago, the private sector has shed 7 percent of its jobs. The federal government, meanwhile, has expanded its payrolls 3 percent.
While many of those who graduated in 2008 got whisked off to high-paying jobs in consulting and finance, the graduates of the barren years of 2009 and 2010 were not courted in the same way. They were mostly left to scrounge about for their own job leads.
“We had to think deeper about our careers, and different kinds of careers,” Sadock says.
A consumer affairs and business major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Sadock spent the summer before her senior year as an intern in the buying department at Kohl’s. She assumed she would exit school with a job in retail as a merchandising analyst.
“I wasn’t really sure what types of jobs existed,” she said. “Retail was what I knew, and nonprofit jobs didn’t really pop into my head as opportunities.”
She sent résumés all over the place, with no luck. The summer after graduation she moved home to Greenwich, Conn., where she and six high school friends commiserated over their dire employment prospects. They banded together to form Grads4Hire, a Babysitters-Club-esque group that did odd jobs like catering and secretarial work.
The members of Grads4Hire also advertised that they would do one hour of community service for every job they booked. They were all active volunteers in college — in the case of Sadock, through her sorority’s partnership with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, an organization devoted to children with life-threatening illnesses.
This was a way to “give back,” Sadock said, and also make themselves “a little more marketable.” It was her first clue that her interests in public service and in paying her bills were in any way related.
At the end of the summer, she moved to Los Angeles to work part-time as a personal assistant. Meanwhile, she began searching for a full-time job.
One acquaintance mentioned an opening at Starlight Children’s Foundation, an organization providing entertainment, education and other support to seriously ill children.
Sadock was an attractive candidate for Starlight. In addition to her volunteer work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, she had a résumé item Starlight was not used to seeing: a business degree.
Sadock was hired almost immediately as a corporate accounts assistant, working with corporate donors like California Pizza Kitchen and Wyndham Hotels on marketing and sponsorship opportunities for Starlight’s programs.
The job is, she says, a perfect application of everything she was trained to do, and had originally planned to do, for the private sector.
“But now I’m serving a purpose,” she says, rather than just “helping some large corporation sell more widgets.”
Like Sadock, many of the dozen other young graduates interviewed for this story say that, in retrospect, they are grateful the private sector shut them out.
“I always thought that nonprofit work was something I’d do as charity, and then have an agency job for a paycheck,” said John Warren Hanawalt, 26, a graphic designer in Boston.
He applied at public relations firms after graduating from Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., in December 2009, but the contract work they offered was not enough to make ends meet.
Nearly a year later, he found a job at Fenway Health, a nonprofit group that works with Boston’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. “It took me a while to see that graphic design could fit into my passion for social justice in a sort of integral way.”
Though happy to have found an energetic, educated, cheap group of workers to replace retiring baby boomers, some nonprofits worry that their popularity among today’s youth may not outlast this period of high unemployment.
Several studies have found, though, that economic conditions at the start of a worker’s career can affect their long-term goals. For most entry-level positions, the pay difference between jobs in nonprofits and those at profit-making companies is often negligible.
“I don’t get paid a million dollars, that’s for sure,” says Sadock, who earns $35,000 annually. “But I am financially independent, and I make ends meet.”
But a few years into the job, the upside is generally much greater for private sector employees. Workers in management jobs at companies, for example, earn about 22 percent more than their nonprofit counterparts.
It is easier to be idealistic and relatively unconcerned about wages when workers are young, childless and mortgage-free; attitudes toward the importance of financial remuneration can change when responsibilities add up.
“I’m not opposed to working in the private sector, depending on what was available as I get older and need a more lucrative career to support family and so on,” Sadock says. “But I’d still like to be something more meaningful. Maybe something in corporate philanthropy would work.”