Despite Government Cutbacks, Student Interest in Public Sector Careers Grows

Despite the bleak employment outlook and negative rhetoric, recent surveys suggest enrollment for public administration programs and interest in government careers has increased.
by | October 7, 2013

Hundreds of thousands of government workers remain furloughed this week as politicians fight another round of the seemingly never-ending battle over the federal budget. At the state and local level, many agencies hit with steep funding cuts in the aftermath of the recession still haven’t recovered, either.

But despite the bleak employment outlook and negative rhetoric, younger Americans don’t appear deterred from pursuing careers in public service.

Recent surveys suggest enrollment for public administration and related graduate degree programs -- along with student interest in government careers -- has actually grown.

What’s not known, though, is whether governments will have jobs for them. Even with the large segment of baby boomers heading for the exits, states and localities might not be able to fill their ranks with as many new workers as they’d like.

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Still, interest in public affairs education is strong. Some might be surprised to learn it’s even faring better than most other degree fields. A study published by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) last month indicates first-time graduate enrollment for “public administration and services” climbed 5 percent in 2012 and has increased 3.6 percent on average over the previous five years. That’s comparable to recent growth for new engineering students. It also outpaces business degree enrollment, which rose 4 percent last year and an average of 2.8 percent over the past five years.

The following chart shows results for all fields measured in the CGS survey of first-time graduate enrollment, by field, over one, five and 10-year periods:

Overall college enrollment previously swelled when the economy tanked as recent graduates and mid-career professionals sought to enhance their resumes. Then, last year, total graduate school enrollment -- including students beyond their first year in school -- dipped 2.3 percent. By contrast, graduate enrollment for public administration degree fields still recorded an annual uptick of 1.9 percent from 2011, the CGS survey found.

So why are so many students interested in public sector careers?

One answer may be a shift in values. Edwin Koc, research director for the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), said taking home a big paycheck and quickly climbing the career ladder are not as important as they once were. This new crop of workers particularly prizes personal growth and opportunities to contribute to their communities – two qualities more associated with the public sector.

“The last few classes that have graduated are distinctly different than those who graduated prior to the recession,” Koc said.

Benefits of government work particularly attractive to today’s students include job security, retirement benefits and the ability to travel, said Melissa Emerson, who teaches at Mississippi State University and serves on the American Society for Public Administration’s national council.

But above all else, they want to engage in public service.

“The motivation to work in the public sector stems from a desire to help others,” Emerson said. “Young people in America are socialized with that aspect in mind.”

The Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA) also reports a jump in graduate school enrollment over the past five years. The group’s most recent survey of its members conducted this spring found mostly stable enrollment over the year: 33 percent recorded an increase, 21 percent experienced declines and 46 percent of schools reported no changes since 2012.

Data further suggests a sizable share of students want to apply their skills to roles in government.

In its most recent student survey, NACE asked students to identify the top three industries in which they preferred to begin their careers, assigning votes based on their first, second and third choices (#1 = 5 votes, #2 = 3 votes and #3 = 1 vote). Among seniors expecting to earn bachelor’s degrees by the end of the 2012 academic year, government topped all other industries with 9,693 votes.

Other public-sector heavy industries recorded similarly high scores. After government, human services received 9,677 votes, followed by education (8,923) and social services (8,092).

The chart below shows full results from the 2012 NACE survey of 15,715 graduating seniors:

(Some industry classifications used here overlap with government careers. It’s also worth noting that the survey asked students where they preferred to work upon graduating, not where they had planned to work.)

Many students who study public administration or show an interest in government employment will likely end up working for nonprofits or contractors, a longer-term trend that’s persisted as these organizations take on duties traditionally performed by public employees.

According to the latest NASPAA data from 2011, 46 percent of students earning degrees from public administration and public policy graduate programs held jobs in government within six months. Nearly the same number had landed positions elsewhere, either at nonprofits (27 percent) or private companies (18 percent).

“Some students have definitely turned away from working directly for government,” said Laurel McFarland, NASPAA’s executive director. “Part of that is push and part is pull.”

Recent graduates looking for entry-level positions in some jurisdictions might be out of luck. As a whole, state and local payrolls have been mostly flat this year.

Others simply find nonprofit careers to be more attractive.

Millennials bring different priorities to the workplace that they’ll expect employers to meet as well. Read more about this group of workers and the barriers they face breaking into the public sector in a story in the October issue of Governing.

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