Ways to Sway an M.P.A

As more public-policy grads take private-sector jobs, governments are having to work harder at recruitment.
by | June 2001

In April, seven weeks before graduation day, students at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government were getting the hard sell from prospective employers. After earlier visits from the big consulting firms, job seekers knew the drill: a pitch speech, interviews with recruiters, wining and dining. This time, however, it wasn't corporate America doing the wooing but local governments--with the Kennedy School encouraging its soon-to-be alumni to take jobs in municipal government for half the salary they could command in the private sector.

Last year, only one-third of Harvard's graduate-level public policy class went to work in the public sector. Meanwhile, the portion going to private-sector consulting firms and nonprofit organizations, continues to grow. The Kennedy School's first-ever "city fair" was intended to change that.

The two-day event kicked off with a pep rally featuring Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who touted the virtues of local government. Faculty members kept up the pressure over dinner with students. Harvard paid to bring in recruiters from Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The next morning, 80 students--twice as many as organizers expected--streamed into a room overlooking the Charles River for interviews. But only time will tell if it helps reverse trends that have led cynics to nickname Harvard's famous policy school the "Kennedy School of Consulting."

The Kennedy School is not the only school of public policy and administration that has lost some of the "public" lately. Especially at top-tier graduate schools, more and more students are not only choosing careers with high-paying private firms but also with nonprofit organizations. As the schools themselves debate whether to embrace or fight this trend, state and local governments are left dealing with the consequences. What can they do to attract the best and brightest from America's M.P.A. programs back into government?

It won't be easy. The public sector struggles with an image that is anathema to GenXers in the career starting gate: that government work is boring, bureaucratic and leaves little room for advancement. Even those committed to the public sector might think twice after reading this year's U.S.News & World Report Best Graduate Schools study. The report, which is the bible of prospective students, highlights a graduate of Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He now works for Edison Schools Inc., a private company that manages public schools.

The world of public service is much more fragmented than it used to be. After years of privatization and outsourcing, students in public affairs today have many more career choices than they did 20 years ago. Government, it seems, has launched for-profit and nonprofit industries that compete against it for talent, only to find that the talent likes working for the competition better. "These students are the future leadership core of the public sector," says Brookings Institution scholar Paul Light, who wrote about this trend in his book "The New Public Service." "We're losing them left and right to the private and nonprofit sectors."

Among educators, the pull away from the public sector is a touchy issue. Some schools seem overcome by guilt and are trying actively to steer more students toward jobs in government. At Carnegie Mellon's Heinz School of Public Policy and Management, where 67 percent of the graduate-level class of 2000 took private-sector or consulting jobs, career counselors are stepping up efforts to highlight government opportunities. Harvard, which has perhaps done the most soul-searching lately, is funding 10 state and local internships in Massachusetts, in addition to six fellowship positions that are expected to matriculate into full-time positions.

Other schools, meanwhile, are accommodating the changing job market. A number of schools have added a concentration in nonprofit management to their M.P.A. programs. American University's School of Public Affairs has gone so far as to add management consulting to its five fields of concentration for M.P.A. grads. "We see it as another way to serve the public interest," says Donald Zauderer, one of the professors behind the change.

For all the red flags, however, some argue that government's M.P.A. crisis is overblown, at least at the state and local level. The U.S.News Top 20 may be producing fewer government workers, but the trend isn't as strong among regional schools. Indeed, if you look at all 10,000 of last year's public affairs and public administration graduates, you find that the number taking jobs in state and local government is actually RISING. "What we are seeing," says Michael Brintnall, head of the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration, "is a lot more people going into local government, and fewer people going to the federal government."

Still, NASPAA is concerned enough about private-sector poaching that it launched a campus campaign to show the hip side of government work. Its glossy brochure entitled "Look Ma! I'm a Bureaucrat!" highlights young grads who hold important and exciting jobs in all levels of government.

For state and local governments seeking a recruiting edge, image may be everything. Right or wrong, many students these days not only perceive government jobs as dead ends, but see politics and bureaucracy as barriers to accomplishing anything. Two reasons M.P.A.s give for choosing nonprofits are that they think they can move up faster in a smaller organization and that they feel closer to the point where their work makes a difference. Likewise, some favor consulting for the fast pace, the teamwork and the constant challenge of moving from one project to the next.

Paul Light argues that government at all levels has neglected career development. What people want most from their jobs nowadays is a challenging work, room for personal growth, skill development and something interesting to do. "To rewrite Cuba Gooding Jr.'s famous line from "Jerry Maguire," Light says, "the top students are saying `Show me the work,' not `Show me the money.'"

Of course, for a good number of students, money does matter-- especially when their diplomas come with a pile of loans to pay off. State and local governments may never match six-figure consulting salaries and signing bonuses, but if they want to land students from the top grad schools they must take student debt into consideration.

The District of Columbia is trying to attract M.P.A. grads by showing them both the work and the money. Last year, it began the Capital City Fellows program, which lets recent graduates sample various kinds of local government work. Fellows rotate through six-month stints with four different agencies. The hope is that fellows will find their niche somewhere and stay long after the two years are up.

After the program's first year, however, city officials worried that the $36,000 starting salary might not be enough. The federal government was offering the same pay for its own Presidential Management Internship, and of the 14 people the city offered fellowships to, five took the federal P.M.I. instead. Given the student-loan burden and high cost of housing, D.C. upped the compensation scale to $44,000 for first-year fellows and $48,000 for the second year.

Besides pay, the private sector is beating government in on-campus recruiting. At top schools, consulting firms land on campus by late September. For graduating students who are already anxious about what they will do with their degrees, the firms offer the chance to have a job sealed up around New Year's. State and local agencies, on the other hand, don't do much on-campus recruiting. To the extent they do, it is mostly limited to springtime when they know what jobs will be open in May or June.

To compete, government agencies must create an on-campus presence earlier in the game. This is what the California Legislative Analyst's Office did. The agency, which acts as the nonpartisan research arm of the legislature, used to do its annual recruiting drive in the spring. But by the time recruiter Larry Castro got to the schools, he found that candidates were already weighing several offers. Castro shifted his efforts forward to the fall, and now aims to have offers out shortly after Christmas break. "Students' opportunities were shifting earlier," Castro says, "so if they wanted to look at options like us, they needed us there earlier."

Government's best hope, however, lies in a more subtle approach based on building relationships with schools. Some 250 state and local agencies in New York, for example, have been mining talent from SUNY- Albany's Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy for years. The key is the school's internship program, which is unique in that many students intern for their entire two years. Michelle Marto, the school's assistant dean for professional services says the internships "hook 'em early" on government service. Graduation statistics back this up: All 30 of the school's public policy and administration graduates last year went into the public sector.

These kinds of ties open contacts and opportunities for both students and the governments that would employ them. Smaller, regional schools have known this for years. Most of the M.P.A. students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, for example, are mid-career people who come to school with state or local job connections already. So it's no surprise that most of them find their way back into government again when they graduate.

What's more, the school has decided to keep its focus locked on the public sector and, to a lesser extent, the nonprofit sector. "That doesn't mean that some of our students don't go into consulting," says B.J. Reed, dean of the college of public affairs and community service. "But we don't promote it and our students are not oriented to it. We say if you want that kind of degree, go to business school and get your M.B.A. You'll be happier, and we'll be happier."