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K-School Students Forsake Government Jobs

Rethinking Public Service


The catalogue says it all: "The challenge of the modern world is government." And each year, the Kennedy School of Government instructs more than 750 students in three separate programs designed to train future leaders to meet that challenge.

"They have come here to acquire the skills that are going to be important in becoming leaders in public service," says Terry A. O'Neil, the school's assistant director for programs in public policy.

But in recent years, bolstered by the federal government's de-emphasis of social services and the growth of the non-profit sector, K-School students are increasingly turning away from government jobs to seek employment in non-profit organizations and private firms.

In 1988, more than half the students in the two-year Master of Public Policy (MPP) and Master of Public Administration (MPA2) programs chose careers in non-governmental fields. And while non-profit and private jobs have long been popular at the K-school, the number of students going into these fields is on the rise.

And many K-School students and alumni say they are increasingly becoming convinced that government jobs are no longer the best place to pursue public service careers.

"I was not interested in going into government work," says Carol A. Glazer, a 1985 graduate and vice president of the New York-based Local Initiative Support Coalition. "My position here has allowed me to work with grass-roots organizations and policy makers at a high level."

Particularly dramatic is the increase in students seeking public service jobs in the non-profit sector. In 1986, only 9 percent of MPP graduates took non-profit jobs; by last year that figure had climbed to 28 percent. In the MPA2 program, the figure climbed from 10 percent in 1986 to 28 percent in 1988.

And K-School administrators say the trend is part of a broader national phenomenon. As the federal government has cut back on human services, non-profit firms have been forced to take up the slack, pushing K-School professors to re-evaluate their goals.

"I think they are becoming a more important part of the world," says Ramsey Professor of Political Economy Richard J. Zeckhauser '62, explaining the growth of the non-profit industry. "They offer more freedom and responsibility than government jobs," he adds.

"The number of non-profit organizations is just mind-boggling and it has been a question of identifying those institutions and the good placements," says Judy F. Kugel, the K-School's director of career services.

As a result of this growth, many K-School students find that the types of projects that initially attracted them to government jobs are now being done in the non-profit sector.

"I think it is true that during the past eight years when government cut back on human services that there has been an increased number of non-profits to fill that demand," says Robert N. Stavins, assistant professor of public policy in economics and environmental policy.

"The federal government is just doing much less in the area of human services," says Olivia A. Golden '76, a former Massachusetts official who came to the K-School as a lecturer after mounting an unsuccessful campaign for the state senate.

Non-profit jobs fall into a wide variety of categories, which continue to broaden as the industry grows. Among the areas which administrators say appeal most to Kennedy School graduates are education, advocacy and analysis.

Within the private sector, the most popular jobs are in public finance, municipal bonds analysis and consulting, according to Henry Lee, executive director of the Energy and Environmental Policy Center. A few--but not many--go to work for law firms and major corporations, Lee says.

Kugel says that many students who initially plan careers in government are lured into outside fields by the promise of higher wages. While some students come to the K-School with the perception that the non-profit sector can barely afford to pay them, Kugel says, they often find upon graduating that such jobs can be highly profitable.

Conversely, students often discover that impressive-sounding government jobs carry little promise of financial security.

"How does the government expect to get the best people if it pays so badly?" Kugel says.

And with the high cost Harvard education--tuition alone for the master's programs costs more than $12,000 a year--many Kennedy School graduates find they have to work in non-government jobs, private or non-profit, simply to pay off their loans.

"A lot of us are going somewhere where our hearts are not really in in it, but we have to pay the loans," says Brian M. Baldwin, who studies in a joint MPP-law degree program. "The problem is that given my own tastes [non-profit] is what I would like to do, but when we come out of these programs we are heavily in debt and that tends to color my thinking."

Transition Careers

"I could probably see myself working in some agency in the Caribbean or in the U.S." says Steve Riley, a first-year MPP student. "The only drawback would be the level of pay. If you work for a bank, for example, the World Bank, the pay scale is much higher."

Other students, according to Zeckhauser, decide to use non-profit jobs as a transition to careers in government.

"It is a very good thing to do for five years if you are going to do something else later," he says.

Still others decide that government jobs are dead ends for serious public service work.

"The people here are public-policy oriented--but that doesn't mean they want to end up in a government bureacracy," says Timothy A. Wilkins, a joint MPP-law student.

And as K-school students begin to turn away from government jobs, other employers are stepping up their efforts to recruit them, Kugel says.

The newest of the University's graduate schools, the Kennedy School has yet to establish a definite "market" for its graduates, Kugel says. Many employers, she said, still do not properly understand the masters programs--a situation which can create problems for job-seeking K-School graduates.

The degree "is not quite as well defined as a law or business degree," Kugel says. "It means that we can try to sell ourselves to many more organizations but it also means that people tend to go with what they understand."

As the school's reputation has grown, she says, employers from a variety of fields have begun to look on a K-School degree as an asset.

"Part of it is that [before] there were a few employers who knew about [the programs] whereas when the program gets established there are more people out there who know about it," says Golden. "It may just be a broadening of the network."

A Resume Bonus

And many of the two-year masters students say that the degree will be a bonus on their resumes. Baldwin, who worked as an analyst in George Bush's presidential campaign, said he came to the Kennedy School in part to "hone down the edges because I am sort of self-taught."

"A Kennedy School degree makes me legitimate," Baldwin says.

But while many students appear to be moving away from pure government careers, Kennedy School faculty say they are confident that the school's focus remains the same.

Many K-School affilates say that the recent trend toward non-government jobs is a temporary phenomenon--the byproduct of a Reagan era disaffection with big government bureaucracy.

"During the Reagan era government was not something you felt like rushing into...Recently, Massachusetts hasn't been a good area either," says Zeckhauser.

"We've had 12 years in the government now saying that government isn't the place to be," says Lee.

And as the political climate in the country begins to change, Stavins says, many of the students who are now turning away from government jobs will begin to re-evaluate their priorities.

"I believe that with the change from Reagan to Bush we are going to see a lot more interest in service," Stavins says, "That change in government, in addition to changes that are going on nationally are going to reflect in an increase in government and public service."

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