Two years ago, I sat with college sophomores at Princeton University to discuss their professional futures. My pitch was for public service, federal government service to be exact. I was leading the university’s Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative, and I faced a youthful, academically accomplished group with hearts that embraced the ideals of service to others. But most had their sights on Wall Street or Fortune 500 companies after graduation. In the group of 35, I could count the number of African-American students in attendance on one hand.
Only a few students approached me at the end of the discussion. I secretly hoped they had not stayed out of pity. Most worried about being able to afford to pay for their mounting student loans, particularly if they were thinking of attending law school. Some disdainfully rejected the notion of working under the Bush administration. Almost all lacked a basic understanding of the wide-ranging professional employment opportunities in the federal government. I loved the response from one student who anticipated this comeback from her parents, “After we’ve shelled out our hard earned $200,000, you want to work for the government?”
Much has changed since then. We are in a recession, our economy hemorrhaging through its financial sector and, as of December 2008, the unemployment rate stands at 7.2 percent, affecting the jobs coveted most by college graduates. More positively, we have a new president with a challenging portfolio who believes in the power of service, particularly government service, and its capacity to be effective. As President Barack Obama underscored in his inaugural address, “[t]he question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works…”
We desperately need government to work. Being a civil servant is an opportunity to serve our neighbors and ourselves. Our government needs our most talented to be part of this effort, and now students like the ones who met me with excuses two years ago are answering the government’s call with a resounding “YES.” Back in December, Obama’s transition team received more than 330,000 applications for only 3,300 political positions in the administration, eclipsing the 44,000 and 135,000 applicants during the Bush and Clinton transitions, respectively.
We have not seen this kind of enthusiasm for government service since President John F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” appeal in his famous 1961 inaugural address. And I suspect that in the new wave of applicants, the number of black civil servant prospects is higher than ever. The good news is that aside from the political appointments, there are over 190,000 federal government jobs that need to be filled in the coming years. These are positions critical to the functioning of our country, with foreign diplomacy, law enforcement and security being the areas of greatest need.
For all of those bright, eager young minds now interested in giving government a shot, there are plenty of resources, like usajobs.gov and ourpublicservice.org, full of information for the current, fiercely competitive job hunt.
With a cool new president and a crowded field of civil servant applicants, I suspect Wall Street recruiters may now face some of the skepticism I met two years ago. That’s good for government. That’s good for our country.
Sundaa Bridgett Jones is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.