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Talent for Hire

March 17, 2011

(Reilly Kiernan is midway through a year-long Project 55 Fellowship at the Foundation Center. In her last post, she wrote about social change work on campus versus the real world.)

Now_hiring I graduated into one of the worst job markets in recent history.

Even big investment banks, which typically mine schools like my alma mater for eager recruits, cut back their hiring, in some cases by a record amount. As a result, my classmates and I, like college grads around the country, struggled to find work of any kind, let alone work about which we were passionate.

But the stormy job market does have a silver lining. With so much recently graduated human capital sitting around, interest in non-traditional opportunities, especially those in the nonprofit sector, has soared. And because employment opportunities in the sector are growing faster than they are on the for-profit side, more and more young people are turning to public interest jobs.

It turns out that my peers and I are part of what a recent New York Times article calls "a cohort of young college graduates who ended up doing good because the economy did them wrong."

It's a trend I’ve noticed among my friends and classmates, and the piece in the Times offers some statistical evidence to support that perception. In the article, Catherine Rampell examined data from the American Community Survey of the United States Census Bureau, which found that "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."

Over the course of my fellowship here at the Foundation Center, I've attended several seminars that brought together fellows from Harvard’s Center for Public Interest Careers, Dartmouth’s Partners in Community Service, and the Princeton AlumniCorps network. Each of those programs saw record interest last year on the part of graduating seniors.

The article in the Times teases out some of the possible reasons for the surge in interest. It make sense, for example, that recent college grads are keen on the nonprofit sector because nonprofit jobs are pretty much the only ones available at the moment. Recent graduates who might have been lured into law or financial services by promises of giant bonuses and six-figure starting salaries have been liberated, so to speak, to devote themselves to working for a good cause.

But it’s also possible the trend is a reflection of a generational zeitgeist. The Times article cites survey results that demonstrate a greater interest among so-called Millennials in volunteering and service and also alludes to the Obama administration's push to make service "cool." At the same time, some of my friends have told me the financial crisis colored their perceptions of the value of a career in investment banking or corporate law and got them thinking about a job or even a career that prioritizes non-financial sources of fulfillment.

The most interesting question raised by the Times article, however, is to what extent "a different starting point" will "recalibrate" young job seekers’ long-term career aspirations -- or whether those aspirations will evaporate as jobs in better-paying fields become more plentiful.

As the article suggests, we won’t know for a while. In the meantime, nonprofit organizations should be taking full advantage of the opportunity presented to them by investing in the professional development of their youngest employees. New nonprofit employees need to believe that the work they are doing is not only meaningful, but that the sector itself is more than a fall-back option in tough economic times. Let’s be honest: The money isn't great. And even the most capable, motivated, and committed recent college grad is bound to feel frustrated by how small her efforts to make the world a better place seem in the grand scheme of things. Without regular encouragement, mentoring, and career development opportunities, that recent college grad may eventually become discouraged or even disillusioned. That's bad for her employer -- and bad for the future of the sector.

-- Reilly Kiernan

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