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Weekday afternoons in January 2001, Amita Kulkarni '00 sat in her Boston apartment doing nothing. Kulkarni's employer, the management-consultant giant Cap Gemini/Ernst & Young, was having trouble attracting new clients. An army of bright Ivy League recruits brought in with starting salaries of more than $50,000 sat idle; some were assigned to internal projects while others were simply sent home.
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Jared Leeds
Amita Kulkarni '00 expected to be laid off but still found the loss of job security traumatic.

Kulkarni still had a job, but she figured it wouldn't last much longer. She'd been hired during an unprecedented boom period, a time during which hundreds of Brown graduates concentrating in everything from comparative literature to engineering had entered the thriving financial-services and consulting industries. Of the 437 graduates in the class of 2000 who reported accepting a job, for example, nearly 35 percent had gone to work in those sectors. In fact, consulting and investment-banking firms represented the most visible recruiting presence on campus in the late 1990s. They dominated the "top employers list" at Brown's Office of Career Services from 1998 to 2000, and hired dozens of graduating seniors each year. Brown wasn't alone. In late 1999 Nicholas Lemann of the New Yorker observed that "every elite college's undergraduate career-placement office has become, to a large extent, a clearinghouse for the recruiting process." Corporate recruiting, as Lemann noted (and as any recent Brown graduate can attest), "dominates senior-year conversation; students find themselves wondering if there's something wrong with them if they're not interested in consulting and investment banking."

In early 2000, as a steady procession of seniors in business suits marched down Thayer Street toward Pembroke Hall for interviews, Kulkarni was among the crowd. But when the slowdown began later that year, new hires like her did not fully grasp the gravity of their situation. Kulkarni recalls hearing talk of trimming and streamlining in her company but notes, with regret, that "of course I didn't understand any of this until it applied to me."

By January 2001 many recent graduates had started looking for other jobs. Kulkarni, who knew her position was highly insecure, applied for another consulting job, but wasn't hired. Eventually becoming frustrated with the scarcity of consulting options, she began attending nonprofit fairs all over Boston. She persevered despite her fears that nonprofit organizations would be put off by her limited experience or, worse, that they would dismiss her as a sellout. In March the pink slip arrived. Though she saw it coming, Kulkarni insists that "the layoff was still shocking. The fact that the job security was gone was traumatic."

SUCH STORIES have been surprisingly common among recent college graduates, and Brown's graduating seniors are no exception. The rise and fall of Silicon Valley is by now an old business tale. But the decline of the information-technology sector and the broad cutbacks triggered by the current recession have dramatically altered the career paths of many young Brown alumni and the aspirations of this year's job-seeking seniors.

Computer science concentrators no longer assume that their summer internships will turn into permanent positions at Sun and Microsoft, for example. Instead they and many others are seeking refuge from the economic downturn by heading for graduate school. The New York Times recently reported that law school applications have jumped 57 percent at Yale and 33 percent at the University of Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, on-campus recruiting has slowed dramatically. The Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University found that 85 percent of employers surveyed planned to hire less this year, while 6 percent planned not to hire at all. Thirty-four percent fewer graduates with bachelor's degrees were offered jobs this year than had been projected in 2001. A survey conducted last October by the career consultancy hotU Inc. found that 68 percent of 1,900 students polled believe it is more difficult to find a job in today's market.

Brown students have felt the shock waves. According to Director of Career Services Sheila Curran, the number of employers recruiting on campus dropped 25 percent this year, and the number of available jobs has fallen a precipitous 30 to 40 percent. As Curran notes, in a recession "one of the first things to go is always advertising, and the second thing is consulting." Consulting firms such as McKinsey and Co. dropped Brown from their recruiting lists altogether this year, while such fixtures as the investment-banking firm Goldman Sachs have cut back across the board, hiring considerably fewer Brown students than in past years. The field-specific career fairs held during the 200001 academic year have been consolidated into two larger events, one in the fall and one in the spring. Among those that did not take place this year was the banking/ consulting fair, which the year before had attracted more than forty firms. Kerry Willigan, associate director of employer relations at Brown's career services office notes, "If we had had a banking/consulting fair in the fall, we would have had seven or eight people." As a result, hundreds of students hoping for a high-paying job in strategic consulting or investment banking have been forced to look elsewhere.

Ironically, this bad economy could benefit public service. With fewer lucrative offers coming their way, students seem more willing to pursue noncorporate options. Last fall's hotU Inc. survey found that 32 percent of students surveyed said they were more likely this year to consider a career in government, politics, or international relations than they were last year. Statistics from Teach for America and the Peace Corps, two reliable barometers for student interest in public-service careers, already show unprecedented increases. At Teach for America, applications have increased threefold since last year, and the total of 14,000 is the most ever in the organization's history. Applications from Brown students increased 50 percent this year, according to Crystal Brakke of Teach for America. The New England office of the Peace Corps has received about 20 percent more applications overall than at the same point last year, and officials there project that the number of Brown students applying to the Peace Corps is likely to double by this December.

TAKE AMITA KULKARNI, for example. when she was laid off by Cap Gemini, she had no idea that one year later she would find herself in a refugee camp along the Afghan-Pakistani border interviewing women about their future role in a reconstructed Afghanistan. Nor did she have any idea she'd be giving presentations at major American universities upon her return. But in fact as a staffer at the Women Waging Peace Project (part of the Kennedy School of Government's Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard), Kulkarni has ended up much closer to where she began. During her time as an international- relations concentrator at Brown, Kulkarni served on the editorial staff of the Brown Journal of World Affairs, and during her junior year she studied abroad at the School of African and Oriental Studies at the University of London. Nevertheless, when the inevitable senior-year job search rolled around, Kulkarni, like so many of her peers, had turned to the corporate recruiters.

Kulkarni's classmate Paula Zaslavsky was drawn to the information-technology sector for similar reasons. A cognitive-sciences concentrator, Zaslavsky had looked briefly at publishing jobs before graduation but dreaded the prospect of being an editorial assistant. So when a software-design position opened up at a New York City company called Telcordia, she was happy to take it. Assigned to a small team of "usability engineers," she helped design user interfaces for telecommunications software. Zaslavsky recalls that although "it was nice meeting with CEOs three months out of school," the job "soon turned into busy work." The economic downturn hit the tele-communications industry relatively early, so last May, as demand for new software dried up, the layoffs began. Zaslavsky was let go in late January. Since then, she has been collecting unemployment benefits.

Zaslavsky believes the layoff may be a blessing in disguise. "Getting laid off," she says, "has given me a lot of freedom to think about what I really want to do. And I don't think it's in computers." In high school and at Brown she was active in theater, managing numerous performances for Production Workshop, Brownbrokers, and senior shows; she even served on the PW and Brownbrokers boards. "At the time," she says, "I vowed I'd never do that as a job, but now that I'm assessing where I want to be, I realize I really enjoyed that." Though she is not currently pursuing theater, unemployment has prompted Zaslavsky to explore the management and production sides of television, music videos, and film. After seeing the 1999 film The Insider, which focused on a 60 Minutes producer's quest to expose wrongdoing in the tobacco industry, she realized she "wanted that guy's job." Zaslavsky argues that getting laid off has freed her to think big - at least until she runs out of money. "Unemployment's a pay cut," she notes with a laugh, "so after that anything looks good."

The recession has had equally dramatic effects on this year's graduating seniors and the people who advise them. Curran and her staff have found themselves providing career guidance to a senior class that has known nothing but an expanding economy and limitless hiring. Now that the expansion has ended and a contraction has followed, the job for Curran and her staff has included managing student expectations. Brown seniors, who have seen friends receive numerous offers over the past two years and slide into the consulting industry with relative ease just months after graduation, are wondering what happened.

"They are sometimes looking for us to gift-wrap the perfect job for them," says Kerry Willigan of career services, "and obviously we can't do that." Anticipating that such skills as networking and job searching would be essential tools for a class facing fewer on-campus recruiters, this year career services called on alumni to help. Willigan and her colleagues convened a career fair that included nineteen panels staffed with 125 alumni to address such professional fields as finance, nonprofit work, and entertainment. "In some ways," Curran quips, "a poor economy is the best preparation for a lifetime of job seeking." But the disappearance of so many on-campus recruiters has also led to a great deal of anxiety.

Greg Pelly '02, a computer-science concentrator, embodies the conflicting pressures that Brown students in particular seem to face. Pelly embraces the idealism prevalent at the University but admits that it may sometimes be impractical. "Computer science could get me rich and famous," he says, "but it's important to me to do something personally meaningful."

Admitting that his career plans change "just about every week," Pelly interviewed last fall with both Microsoft and the Peace Corps. ("Microsoft gives you riddles," he adds, "and Peace Corps asks you how you deal with adversity.") For the second semester of his junior year, Pelly studied abroad in Cameroon. Although he rarely touched a computer during that time, his West African experience changed his outlook dramatically, broadening his horizons and opening his eyes to the technological and infrastructural needs of Third World countries. Pelly is eager to return as a Peace Corps volunteer, but he's also concerned about what that might do to his job prospects afterward. "Will my computer-science degree mean anything two years from now?" he wonders. Pelly knows all too well that in the rapidly changing technology industry two years is a very long time. "I don't want to sell myself short," he adds.

One way of melding his two interests, Pelly says, is to bring his computer skills to nonprofit organizations. He knows, however, that what many nonprofits want is just someone to redesign their Web site or troubleshoot their network, mundane tasks for most computer-science grads. Pelly has settled on environmental science as a possible way to integrate both his commitment to social justice and his computer skills, noting that "environmentalists use numbers a lot in ways others don't" when modeling such things as populations and pollution. "I'm going to try for a couple of years to do the follow-my-passions thing and see where it takes me," he says.

Of course, the growing appeal of public service and the nonprofit sector is far from universal. In fact, some of Brown's most service-oriented graduates have bucked the trend, opting instead to push for the remaining positions in the private sector. Patrick O'Brien '02 is one of them, though almost none of his peers expected he would be. O'Brien is a familiar presence at Brown's Swearer Center for Public Service, where he became a recognized leader after transferring from New York University. While a student, O'Brien started an AIDS oral-history project, established a program for terminally ill elderly patients called Finding the Words, and worked with Northern Ireland's homeless population during summer vacation. He also worked tutoring homeless children for the New York City public schools and has been an advocate for prison reform. Last fall, O'Brien edited the Brown Journal of World Affairs.

In September, however, O'Brien plans to join the investment bank J.P. Morgan. Many of his experiences working at nonprofits, he says, left him disillusioned. "I had this vision," he explains, "of going into inner-city schools and making a difference," but he eventually became troubled by the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the public school system and by the general chaos of many organizations. Most nonprofits and public-sector agencies, he explains, "don't have anything compelling them to be efficient," so O'Brien hopes to enter the corporate world and later to bring its lessons to the nonprofit sector.

WHAT CAN THE UNIVERSITY do to help seniors cope with a changed economy and the job angst it has triggered? Although the career-services office has done well matching students with corporate recruiters these past few years, Kathleen Connolly '89 of the Swearer Center for Public Service's Careers for the Common Good believes Brown could do a better job "to help students think beyond structured opportunities." She explains that "it's a complicated process to synthesize a liberal-arts education and decide what you want to do with it," and the career-services office is simply not equipped to deal with students who don't fit the traditional corporate mold. Referring to the resume critiques organized by that office and attended largely by investment-banking and consulting hopefuls, Connolly asks, "Is Goldman Sachs going to read a resume in the same way as United Mothers for Justice?" She also notes that the recruiting landscape at Pembroke Hall is often dominated by corporate recruiters who reserve numerous rooms for their large teams, eclipsing nonprofit employers, who often do not have the resources for mass on-campus interviewing. The end result, says Connolly, is "an uneven field of visibility," on which large corporate recruiting operations skew students' perceptions of available options.

Kerry Willigan denies any overt policy of exclusion by career services, adding that her office is always looking for new prospective employers from all sectors. "We would never turn people away," she says, but she adds that there is "a certain profile of the organization that can afford on-campus recruiting" and concedes that there is "a business bias - no matter how hard we try."

Connolly's Careers for the Common Good tries to broaden the career options offered to students. Working with the campus-based Venture Consortium, an alliance of liberal-arts colleges devoted to providing students with off-campus experiential learning experiences, Connolly has traveled to several campuses with Venture Consortium director Peggy Chang to inform students about public-service careers. Although Chang works mostly with the nine active Venture Consortium schools, she and Connolly have also been invited to several other institutions seeking to develop similar programs. In addition, more than thirty campuses now link to the Careers for the Common Good Web site, and other sites, such as www.idealist.org, have joined in helping distribute information about alternatives to the corporate track.

Other organizations are spreading the word about jobs in government, where opportunity is growing despite the economy. But students are unlikely to learn this from visiting their campus career office. According to the Partner-ship for Public Service (PPS), 53 percent of the federal workforce may be eligible for retirement over the next five years, and the federal government has done very little to address the impending drain. Last year Samuel Heyman, a businessman and former U.S. Department of Justice attorney, formed PPS to address this issue. He hopes to use a high-powered staff of government and business insiders to revitalize the civil service by pushing for changes that would make the federal government a more attractive employer to college graduates.

"It's not that the government does a poor job of recruiting," says PPS president Max Stier. "It doesn't recruit!" According to an October 2001 PPS/Hart-Teeter survey, only 21 percent of college graduates recall a federal recruiter ever visiting their campus. "There is a war for talent," Stier says, "and the government cannot lose that war the way it's losing it now and provide us with the kind of government that everyone in this country wants." Among other things, PPS is recommending more competitive salaries as well as loan forgiveness programs to attract consulting- and investment-banking-bound seniors. Fifteen university and college presidents sit on the PPS board, and another seventy-five, including President Ruth Simmons, have pledged their support.

 

FOR AMITA KULKARNI, the past several months have been tough but rewarding. She has organized a conference at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government on the role of women in Afghanistan's reconstruction, has traveled to Pakistan to interview refugees in Peshawar, and has given a presentation on her findings at Mount Holyoke College. "I would never be doing this as a consultant," she reflects. "Come on!" Kulkarni characterizes the journey from consulting to the Women Waging Peace Project as an "incredible roller-coaster, an amazing, fortuitous twist of fate." She adds, "I never thought I'd be so close to where I wanted to be." Despite her happiness, though, Kulkarni insists that she would not have left the consulting job on her own: "I was scared. I was so happy to get laid off because I was no longer trapped on this path. The economic downturn provided a lot of opportunity."

That may be true for more and more Brown students. Attendance statistics from the January career week show that large numbers of students are indeed looking into alternative careers; 399 of 956 registered students attended alumni-led seminars on the nonprofit sector, entertainment, and "nontraditional careers"; this compares to only 191 attending consulting and investment-banking seminars. Although Brown has no law school, pre-law adviser and dean Perry Ashley says that so far Brown seems to be bucking the trend of students' applying to professional schools as a way of waiting out a soft job market. Using an early analysis of applicant data, Ashley says his office has processed only 280 law school applications this year, in contrast to 313 the year before. Though he initially expected more, Ashley says he is not surprised. Brown students, he observes, "have not been fazed" by the downturn that's driven up law school applications nationwide. "It's the nature of Brown students. [They] do other things: they travel, they volunteer, they teach English in other countries."

As Kulkarni puts it: "With no job security, risks become equal, and all bets are off. It becomes a rational choice. So why not do something you really want to do?"


Sasha Palakow-Suransky writes for the American Prospect. He is based in Washington, D.C.




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