College Grads Turn to Public Service

As jobs became scarce during the recession, many college graduates turned to public service work, many taking nonprofit and US military jobs. From 2008 to 2009 alone, 16 percent more college graduates worked for the federal government and 11 percent more worked for nonprofit groups, according to an analysis by The New York Times of data from the American Community Survey of the United States Census Bureau. A Labor Department survey showed that the amount of college grads going into these jobs continued to rise in 2010.

Since the start of the recession in 2007, an increasing and steady number of college graduates (tens of thousands) also joined the armed forces, with the Navy and the Army seeing the biggest increases. About 60 percent more graduates joined the Navy in 2011 than in 2007.

“When the economy worsens, as it has in recent years, we certainly see a surge in the number of young people who are highly qualified, who want to join the military,” said Beth Asch, a researcher for the RAND Corp – an organization which has studied U.S. military recruitment for over 40 years.

“Since the mid-2000s, the unemployment rate has essentially doubled,” she said. Since then, the Army and Navy saw more than a 50 percent increase in recruits with college degrees, the RAND Corp reported in 2012.

According to statistics in 2011 from numerous public-service organizations, the number of college graduates nationwide seeking nonprofit work with organizations like AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps and Teach for America also sharply increased.

“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,” Diana Aviv, chief executive of Independent Sector, a trade group for nonprofits, told The New York Times in 2011. “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.”

Applications for Americorps positions nearly tripled from 91,399 in 2008 to 258,829 in 2010, and 582,000 applications were submitted in 2011. The number of applicants for Teach for America also climbed 32 percent in 2011. In 2012, Teach for America received the highest amount of applicants to date – more than 48,000.

Limited work in the private sector and a weak economy weren’t considered sole contributors to the new trend, however. Student loan forgiveness programs, presidential support and a more prevalent desire to serve noted among the millennial generation were also believed to be significantly contributing factors.

Some cited President Barack Obama’s popularity with youth, background as a community organizer, and his promise to make public service “cool” which helped spark young people’s interest in public service careers.

In a 2007 interview with Time magazine, Obama, then a U.S. senator, said that he could “make government and public service cool again” if elected president:

“One of the things I think I can bring to the presidency is to make government and public service cool again. There’s such a hunger among young people for some outlet for their idealism. That’s why you see these movements around Darfur or climate change. You don’t see it expressed in terms of people wanting to serve in the Justice Department or the foreign service. Why should they, when the core missions of those agencies have been gutted? “)

Another perk and influence for recent graduates to enter public service was the federal public service loan forgiveness program, created in 2007. The program grants forgiveness of student loans for those who work in public service for 10 years.

“I think there’s this great need in so many different areas that my generation is just responding to,” Courtney Washburn, a 2010 graduate who decided to make a living in public service, said to Knox News.

“One thing my generation is starting to see is that money isn’t an end all,” says 22 year old graduate Warren Pineda. “We value intrinsic rewards other than money. It’s just trying to be the change that you want to see, because if you don’t do it, nobody else will.”

Some political scientists have said that millennials – those who grew up in the 1990s or the 21st century – are “unusually big-hearted,” attributing this in part to extra community service requirements they had in school.

“This generation grew up with big events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina,” said Sandy Scott, senior communications adviser for the Corporation for National and Community Service in Washington, D.C. – the federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps. “They were exposed in K-12 education at an early age to the rewarding value of volunteering, a new but growing phenomenon. They want to make a hands-on difference, so it’s no surprise they’re flocking to AmeriCorps and other public-service opportunities.”

Although the numbers of educated young people working in public service jobs had been rising slightly since the turn of the millennium, the sudden uptick in 2009 suggests that it may have been the absence of private sector work, and not big-heartedness, that forced more recent grads to seek work in the public sector. From 2008 to 2012, private jobs were down 4 percent; the federal government, meanwhile, expanded by 11.4 percent.

Although nonprofits were happy to have energetic, educated, inexpensive new-hires, some worry that their popularity among today’s youth may not outlast this period of increased unemployment. Several studies have found however, including Paul Oyer’s 2008 findings on M.B.A.’s who graduate in recessions, that economic conditions at the start of a worker’s career can have a strong impact on one’s long-term career trajectory.

That ending may, in fact, not be too far ahead of us now. This month, the Employment and Training Administration of the US Department of Labor reported that first-time unemployment insurance claims were down 330,000 – a low level not seen since January 2008. Bloomberg News cautions, however, that the data does not account for swings that take place at the beginning of a year.

The last three months, moreover, have reportedly marketed the largest four-year decline for public employment since World War II – one public employee was fired for every five private sector workers who found a job. Since the end of 2008, nearly 700,000 public sector employees have lost their jobs, mainly due to budget cuts.

Those who lost their job were more likely to not have a post-secondary education, data presented in “The College Advantage: Weathering the Economic Storm” indicates. Almost four out of every five jobs lost from December 2007 to January 2010 belonged to workers without a college degree, and jobs gained during the recovery have not been returned to those workers, but taken by workers with a bachelor’s or higher degree, or postsecondary training.