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A Surge of Civic-Mindedness

Inquiries about joining up are pouring into the Peace Corps. Applications are rising at the nonprofit program Teach for America, which matches college graduates with teaching jobs in low-income school districts. And Ivy League grad students are flocking to recruiting sessions with the Central Intelligence Agency, General Accounting Office, and other government agencies.

After a decades-long love affair with private industry, job seekers are suddenly setting their sights on public-interest work. A new civic-mindedness following the September 11 attack on America is part of the reason, say recruiters. After all, the heroes of the moment are firefighters, cops, and rescue workers, all of whom make their living by helping others.

Perhaps more important is that a weakening economy has dimmed employment prospects

in private business while demonstrating how insecure a corporate job can be. "The economy has turned south. People started thinking the public sector looked pretty good," says John Noble, director of career services at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

SHARP SPIKES. Through much of the 1990s, many of the Kennedy School's graduates were drawn to jobs in private consulting companies rather than in public service. But this year, Noble reports, the number of students meeting recruiters from the CIA doubled over last year, and similar spikes occurred in sessions with the GAO, the State Dept., and the Treasury Dept.

It's difficult to say just how widespread the search for noncorporate work is. Some executive recruiters who specialize in nonprofit work -- among them Ira Krinsky at Korn/Ferry Intl. and Karen Wilcox at Issacson, Miller in Boston -- say they haven't yet noticed any greater urge than usual among executives to jump into the nonprofit world. Others, however, see a different picture.

"People are rethinking their priorities. It's amazing," says Nancy Nichols, who heads recruiting for nonprofits at executive recruiter Heidrick & Struggles (the Careers channel is a collaboration between Heidrick & Struggles' Web arm, LeadersOnline, and BusinessWeek Online). Nichols notes that she usually receives 5 to 10 inquiries a week from corporate execs who are considering a switch to do-gooder organizations. Since September 11, that number has grown to between 20 and 30. The attitude of the callers is, "'I've made enough money, and I need to give back -- and I need to give back now,'" she says.

"DEFINITE INCREASE." A surge in inquires and applications to some notable government agencies and nonprofits suggests that it isn't just executives with nest eggs who are eyeing public-interest jobs. Kris Torgeson, communications director in the New York office of Doctors Without Borders, which sends medical staff to war zones and other hot spots, reports "a definite increase" in inquiries post-September 11, mainly from doctors and nurses who want to join the organization.

And monthly traffic to the job board at the American Red Cross Web site nearly tripled in September, to about 162,000 visits from the normal 60,000, says Carol Miller, senior director of staffing and employee relations at the relief organization.

Teach for America, the New York-based group that places college grads in two-year teaching stints in urban and rural schools across the country, expects to have received about 3,000 applications for an Oct. 30 deadline, almost triple the number it received for the same round last year.

It's not just students looking at federal government agencies and programs. Last month, the San Francisco Peace Corps office received about 170 applications, up from the 100 it received in October, 2000, according to spokeswoman Ellen Field. Barry Socks, acting director of human resources at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, reports "a substantial increase in resumes" after September 11. And the CIA, which prior to the attacks received 500 to 600 resumes a week, is now seeing close to that same number daily, according to Anya Guilsher, an agency spokeswoman.

BAD RAP. For Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service in Washington, D.C., the new attraction to public-interest work is handing the federal government just the tool it needs to begin fixing a serious problem: a lack of talented candidates for the jobs that will be vacated beginning the next few years, when a large wave of older federal employees become eligible for retirement.

Stier is overseeing a newly formed organization that's pushing measures -- such as streamlining application procedures -- to make government work more appealing to the best and the brightest. He believes that over the past two decades, as government became equated with bureaucracy and "privatization" became a buzz word, federal careers have gotten a bad rap.

However, in a post-September 11 survey by his group of 800 employees and students, 18% said their interest in federal work had increased. If the government seizes on such a change in sentiment and takes steps to make itself a more attractive employer, that percentage could grow, Stier says. "There's no question that the land has been tilled," he adds. "There's an opportunity for government to make a case that talented people should go into government."

MORAL TUG. Count Doug Schneider among those who might enlist. Schneider, 31, is enrolled in a master's degree program in public administration at Harvard. A former Coast Guard officer, he had entered the school hoping to use his degree to land a job with a private consulting company -- and eventually to return to government. Now, he says, with the economic downturn, it's likely he'll move into government (or a nonprofit agency that works with government programs) straight away.

He doesn't see the change in plans as a major disappointment, because he, too, feels the tug of September 11. Says Schneider: "You get a strong sense of duty after something like that." By Pamela Mendels in New York

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