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Senior Class Consciousness

By Alan E. Wirzbicki

Recruiting season has begun for seniors across the country. Consulting and investment banking firms with deep pockets and reputations staked on recruiting top talent will spend thousands of dollars this fall trying to muscle one another aside to attract applicants from the Class of 2001.

Recruiting season inevitably provokes much hand-wringing about the plague of business recruiters at what is allegedly a liberal-arts college. But in the end, half the class will go through recruiting. Invariably, many of the same students who spent their undergraduate years deriding "selling out" will end up at McKinsey next fall. Consulting or investment banking are safe ways to put off a career decision for a while, too; most firms don't expect their associates to stay for more than two years anyway.

But many students, caught up in the understandable anxiety of finding a job, forget the dirty secret of recruiting: Most firms want you far more than you want them. Consulting firms and investment banks are in heavy competition with one another and depend on attracting name-brand college graduates to bolster their reputations. They don't offer obscene starting salaries because they're naturally generous people: That money is there to lure you away from teaching, public service, or continuing your education.

Firms know the seniors they want most probably have many other options after graduation, and most of them don't have any particular passion for consulting (if such a thing exists). This is why they will fight so hard--and spend so much--to win you over in the next few months.

Especially in this tight labor market, students have a tremendous amount of unrealized power over the companies. If seniors at, say, Harvard, Yale and Stanford all decided tomorrow they would simply refuse to apply for jobs at a particular consulting company, other firms would immediately gain a substantial competitive advantage. After a few years, they would be able to tell potential clients that they employ twice as many Ivy-educated associates as their boycotted competitor.

How much would the companies be willing to spend to avoid being put at this competitive disadvantage? There's only one way to find out: The senior class should form a union.

Not a real union, of course, but a sort of pre-union: a collective bargaining unit that would allow students, and not the companies, to set the terms of recruiting season. Faced with the options of negotiating with the union or losing access to their most desirable recruits, companies would be under great competitive pressure to recognize the union.

The Office of Career Services (OCS) already acts in this capacity--sort of. OCS can set terms firms must agree to if they want to recruit on campus. But recruiters have found a way around OCS: like McKinsey, they can just recruit off campus.

But there would be no end-run around a student union. If students could maintain their solidarity, firms would have no recourse but to recognize the union if they wanted to recruit from its membership. And for the first few firms that signed on, it would be a public relations bonanza to have exclusive access to the "best" graduating seniors in the nation.

The potential risk for companies that ignored the union would far outweigh the risk incurred by students who joined. The very worst that could happen to students is that recruiters would blacklist them, and they would never work in consulting or investment banking again. Instead, we'd all be forced to become teachers or do something else socially redeeming. The average Yale or Harvard senior has unparalleled opportunities, though, and the threat of never working in consulting shouldn't really be too meaningful. Besides, blacklisting is illegal.

It's also true that Harvard students would be universally condemned for the sheer greed of demanding even more on top of the already-generous salaries business recruiters offer. I imagine it would be similar to the scorn many people have for baseball players, who make more than a million dollars a year on average but still belong to a union and occasionally go on strike. Not fair! Recruiting firms have been exploiting student greed to win recruits for years. If anything, a union would mitigate the pervasive presence of greed on this campus by reminding students that there is more to college--and to life--than just their own checkbooks.

But any union worth its salt has demands. What could seniors demand? As it is, the recruiting firms are pretty good to us. Higher starting salaries? Contributions to the Senior Gift? Catered meals for seniors at the Charles Hotel every night? No one knows how much the companies are willing to spend. The proverbial sky is the limit--and, therefore, we demand hot air balloon rides for everyone.

Would it be immoral to try to extort as much as possible from recruiters? I don't think so. I took Ec 10, after all, and I know that my self-interest is the only thing that matters. And more stuff from recruiters is in my self-interest. Regardless, these are companies that treat our education like a commodity. And, if we're going to sell out, we might as well go at the highest price we can get.

Students of America: We have nothing to lose but our signing bonuses. We have a world to win. Future consultants of all colleges, unite!

Alan E. Wirzbicki '01, president of The Crimson, is a history and literature concentrator in Eliot House.

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