The Price Is Right

Rather than lamenting the flow of graduates from top schools into finance and consulting, we need to offer a compelling public sector alternative. Don’t expect students to sacrifice a career to do good.

It’s easy to shake our heads at the steady stream of graduates flowing from the world’s top universities straight to investment banks and management consulting firms. Given the fragile economic recovery for the US and dire austerity facing many European nations, it seems almost outrageous that so many of our best and brightest are opting for careers with questionable social value. Does the allure of fast money so easily trump the value of doing good? Is a sense of civic duty and social responsibility so diminished among this generation of future leaders? Is there anything we can do to change this besides imploring graduates to please do something – anything – else?

We have to begin by understanding what drives so many students from top schools to choose these jobs. Money undeniably plays a role, but it’s not as important as one might think. Money is just one factor in a locus of crucial attributes that top college graduates look for in a first job. University students aren’t quite as lost and confused as some, such as Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein, believe. Students at elite schools know what they want, and finance and consulting check the box so clearly on so many of their most important criteria that these jobs effectively become their default options. How many entry-level jobs outside of finance and consulting can claim to offer the same kind of dynamic work environment full of smart, driven individuals that pays well and provides strong prospects for a wide range of careers?

I am by no means trying to justify the decisions of these graduates. I’m certainly not saying that jobs in finance and consulting are everything they promise to be and that these graduates have all made the right choice. I’m trying to explain how this decision looks from the student’s perspective. After all, I was one of these graduates who chose consulting, and I know first-hand how attractive a job in finance and consulting can seem. One can begin with the noble intention of working with non-profits or the government, but in the difficult calculus of career planning, finance and consulting will keep cropping up as hard to resist near-term options.

So what is to be done? How can we divert our best and brightest from selling credit derivatives or calculating the profitability of call centers to solving today’s biggest problems?

What we need is a government alternative to compete directly with finance and consulting that can check the boxes on key graduate job criteria just as well. That’s what Teach for America did for teaching. In the US, that’s what government agencies such as the State Department, Federal Reserve, CIA, and GAO try to do but at a specialized level. We need something that can compete head-to-head with the big investment banks and consulting firms and offer a public sector version of management consulting’s core associate program.

What would such a program look like?

For starters, it would pay well – certainly not Wall Street levels, but something competitive enough to make compensation less of a deciding factor.

It would target college graduates. The US Presidential Management Fellows program is excellent, but one of its primary flaws is that it only recruits master’s students. By this point, it’s too late and many top candidates will have already been wooed and captured by investment banks and consulting firms. Singapore’s analogous Management Associates Program actually begins much earlier by offering college scholarships for promising future civil servants to study at foreign universities.

Most importantly, this program would offer the kind of generalist problem solving experience that management consulting firms claim to provide, where participants have the chance to dive into different government agencies and tackle a broad range of challenging problems. This generalist experience is what makes management consulting so appealing to graduates as a first job and as a launching point for a range of careers.

Finally, this program would replicate the same dynamic, fast-paced environment of a management consulting firm. Many large corporations with heavy bureaucratic structures rivaling those in the public sector run corporate strategy groups that function as internal consulting firms. They mirror the small, agile project team structures of management consulting and operate at a faster pace than the rest of their organizations. There is no structural reason why this cannot be done in government.

We can continue to shake our heads in disappointment as students funnel into banks and consulting firms. Or we can try to understand how ambitious young graduates really think about life after college and offer an alternative to finance and consulting that makes sense career-wise.

Read more in this column Kyle Chan: On Tuesday, A Day For Nation Building

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