Altruism Meets a Weak Job Market
Thursday, July 3, 2008
Posted by: Paige Robertson
Altruism Meets a Weak Job Market
By ANNE MARIE CHAKER
Mike Stewart is putting off law school in favor of teaching in Washington, D.C., for the next two years. Katherine Atwill, an Ivy League graduate, stopped interviewing at consulting firms in favor of teaching in the Bronx. Rebecca Graziano, at age 23, quickly gave up looking for work. "There's nothing out there right now," says the Emory University graduate. She's heading to sub-Saharan Africa to work in youth development.
Young people like these are part of the growing ranks of college graduates who, amid a worsening job market, are contributing to a surge in applications and enlistments at public-service agencies like Teach for America and the Peace Corps. Indeed, only 59% of employers surveyed expect to hire 2008 graduates by the end of the summer, down from 76% the year before, according to a survey of about 1,000 employers by job-search company Monster Worldwide Inc.
But organizations cite another impulse behind this generation's embrace of nontraditional postgraduate employment: a simple desire to change the world.
"There is a significant segment of this population that really wants to make a difference," says Philip D. Gardner, research director at the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University.
Together, the weak economy and increasing civic mindedness are driving grads to work for social causes. Teach for America, the nonprofit organization that sends college graduates to work in low-income public schools, saw applications jump 36% to 24,718 from 18,172 a year ago. Of those, about 3,700 are selected to teach in more than 100 school districts next fall, up more than one-fourth over the year before.
Founded by a young Princeton University alumna in 1990, the organization recruits and trains top college graduates, who commit to two years of teaching in high-poverty urban and rural schools. Teachers are paid by the districts in which they work, with annual salaries typically ranging from $25,000 to $44,000.
Making a difference in the classroom is what prompted 21-year-old Ms. Atwill to sign up. In the fall of her senior year at New York's Columbia University, she braved the campus job-fair circuit, interviewing mostly with consulting firms. A double major in East Asian studies and creative writing, Ms. Atwill decided it was finally her turn to ask some questions on the last round of interviews. One was: What do you really do every day?
"The response would be something like, 'I worked on a report,' " she says. "It didn't seem like they were actually accomplishing things."
At an information session with Teach for America, schoolchildren approached the dais, talking about how they came close to leaving school before their teacher came along. "I thought, 'I can do something I care about and also be effective,' " she says.
The Peace Corps is expecting a 16% increase in applications for the fiscal year ending Oct. 1. Established in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, the Peace Corps sends volunteers to developing countries to work on education, agriculture and other projects. Enthusiasm for the program reached a peak of more than 15,000 volunteers in 1967 before spiraling downward, bottoming out at 5,219 in 1987. But participation has been climbing again in recent years: Fiscal 2007 saw more than 8,000 volunteers -- a level not seen since the 1970s.
Ms. Graziano, who will likely be teaching English to students in Africa, says she eventually wants to go to graduate school, though hasn't yet decided her field of study. In the interim, "I want to do something that makes me more competitive" as an applicant, she says. Volunteering in Africa, she says, "is a more-valuable experience than working at some job, like a bank, for a few years."
Volunteers like Ms. Graziano commit to 27 months of service, and receive a stipend that allows them to live at the same standard as local people. At the end of their service, the volunteers -- whose average age is 27 -- receive $6,000 to be used any way they want in the next phase of their lives.
A domestic version of the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, sends young workers to take on projects in impoverished cities and rural areas. The government-backed organization connects volunteers to a network of more than 4,000 local, state and national service organizations. For most positions, AmeriCorps requires 1,700 hours of service -- typically about a year -- with volunteers receiving a living allowance of about $11,000 a year, plus an education award of $4,725 to be used toward college tuition or repayment of student loans. (Teach for America is one of the AmeriCorps member organizations where volunteers who complete their service qualify for the education grant.)
Jesuit Volunteer Corps, which saw a 14% increase in applications through June of this year, sends mainly new college graduates to work in needy communities both domestically and around the world for as long as two years. And WorldTeach, a nonprofit affiliated with Harvard University, sends volunteers to teach English in developing countries. The organization saw applications among college-graduate volunteers increase by a third this year to 363.
The passion to serve is also hitting a note in the presidential race. In a speech on Wednesday in Colorado Springs, Colo., Sen. Barack Obama said he would expand AmeriCorps to 250,000 slots from the current 75,000. And he would double the size of the Peace Corps by 2011. (A spokesman for Sen. John McCain says that while the Republican contender supports service initiatives, he hasn't proposed any expansion).
While young grads may be driven by social causes, many are acquiring valuable experience and leadership skills that will be useful when they return to the job market.
Still, try to pack in an internship before you sign on, advises Brad Karsh, president of JobBound, a career-counseling service that often works with younger job-seekers. "Have a little bit of business grounding" to put on your résumé, he says, because many employers will wonder, "Will an earthy, crunchy Peace Corps type want to work for The Man?"
The organizations themselves can provide powerful networks of alumni who now work in a variety of companies and industries. The Peace Corps provides career counseling and access to career centers in its 11 regional recruiting offices. It also holds job fairs around the country for recently returning volunteers.
Teach for America has an agreement with certain companies, such as J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., to grant corps members with existing job offers a two-year "deferral" so they can teach for two years and still have a job waiting for them when their commitment is over. It also runs something akin to a career-placement office to connect former teachers with recruiters at major companies, including General Electric Co., McKinsey & Co. and Google Inc.
That kind of partnership with non-teaching career paths helped Mike Stewart's father feel better about his son's joining the organization. "My fear was that he'd go into the teaching world right off the bat," after his service, says the elder Mike Stewart, executive vice president of a medical-device company. "One thing that gives me some comfort is that he is still planning on going to law school."
From The Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121503662915324339.html?mod=googlenews_wsj