Dim job prospects lead college grads to public service

Megan Key
Megan Key, a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota, stands among the items she's packed for a two year stint in the Peace Corps. Key had planned for years to go into public service after graduation, but now is relieved she doesn't need to look for a job in this poor economy.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

On the floor of her childhood bedroom in Minnetonka, 21-year-old Megan Key finished packing two bags that appeared only large enough for a weekend camping trip.

Key graduated with a degree in biology from the University of Minnesota just over a month ago. But in a few days she will be in Swaziland.

She's heading to the African country to begin her two year and three month commitment to the Peace Corps. She'll focus on community health and HIV education.

Key is among a number of recent college graduates considering public service after college -- in one of the toughest job markets in a generation.

Organizations like the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps said they're receiving more applications from graduates faced with dim job prospects. It's a trend that's driven by the economy, and new ideas about public service.

It was always Key's plan to go into the Peace Corps after college, and then head to graduate school.

But after watching her friends and fellow college graduates struggle to find work in this dismal job market, she's even more convinced she made the right decision.

"It's good that I have something to do for two years," Key said. "I'm going back to school after that so it'll be five years before I have to think about looking for a job. Hopefully things will turn around before that."

Entering the Peace Corps takes plenty of planning as the deadline for applying alone is a year before new members are picked. So new college graduates can't toss aside their resume and run off and join the organization in the span of a few weeks.

But the poor economy does seem to have more graduates considering public service as an alternative to fighting the job market.

Teach for America, which signs up new college graduates for two year teaching jobs in rural and urban schools, has seen a 30 percent increase in applications in each of the last three years. This year, Teach for America received 46,000 applications for 4,500 openings.

Anna Peters
Anna Peters is the recruitment and outreach coordinator for the Minnesota Reading Corps. The organization places tutors in Minnesota schools to help students with reading.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Nationally, AmeriCorps has seen a similar increase in applications -- 30 percent over last year.

After graduating from Carleton College in Northfield in the spring, 22-year old Anne O'Gara decided to accept a position with AmeriCorps.

After applying for several jobs, O'Gara said AmeriCorps was the only organization that offered her a position.

"It's very alarming to go into this kind of environment," she said. "I've always had a lot of success in finding part-time jobs and I've never seen any thing like this where I don't get calls back for resumes."

This fall O'Gara will tutor students in reading at a charter school in downtown St. Paul through the AmeriCorps sponsored Minnesota Reading Corps.

For her one year commitment, she'll receive a stipend of less than $1,000 a month, government health coverage, and a $5,350 grant to use for future education expenses.

Most important, O'Gara said, is the experience she expects from her time in the Reading Corps. She hopes to start grad school after one year of service.

Officials at the Minnesota Reading Corps say they've received more applications as the job market has declined, not only from new grads, but from older workers who are facing a mid-career job loss.

Anna Peters, who is in charge of recruitment at the Reading Corps, said public service organizations shouldn't be considered a refuge for people who can't find work.

"The economy may be bad and it may be hard to find a job. But for us we're not going to take anybody just because they need a job," Peters said. "We need people who are committed to their community, people who are motivated by service."

Some say this generation of college graduates is more likely to see public service as an option after college than past generations.

The Millenial Generation, those born between 1980 and 1994, is motivated to enter public service by more than just poor job prospects, said Ashley Etienne, spokesperson for the Corporation for National and Community Service. The government organization oversees public service groups like AmeriCorps.

"Millennials are service oriented," Etienne said. "In fact, many of them are interested in going into service and taking on the challenges of the world."

After all, Etienne said, this is a generation that grew up watching the nation offer volunteer help after national tragedies like the September 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

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