Dylan O'Shea's most lucrative job has been working as a gas station attendant, but last summer he got a better offer. JPMorgan Chase (JMP) recruited O'Shea, then going into his senior year at Maryland's Loyola College, to work in its sales and trading division. Dylan, who graduated last month, attributes his success to his mother. She struggled financially throughout his childhood but always made his getting a good education a priority: first by working three jobs to pay for a private elementary school, and later by sending him to live with his uncle in a New Jersey suburb where he could attend a top-ranked public high school.
O'Shea was shocked by the money JPMorgan Chase was offering: $45,000 base salary and a $5,000 signing bonus. "This is more money than we've ever had," he remembers thinking when he accepted the job. The offer couldn't have come at a more opportune moment: College loans were stacking up, and he looked forward to helping his mother and grandmother financially.
But a few months later he rescinded his acceptance. As president of the student body—and a good student to boot—O'Shea attracted attention from several potential employers. The education nonprofit Teach for America (TFA) recruited him to work as an inner-city teacher in Baltimore after he had accepted the offer from JPMorgan Chase. So last fall, he was forced to choose between a lucrative job in finance and an opportunity to give others an education, something his mother taught him to value.
Swayed by Personal Attention
Ultimately, O'Shea chose teaching. His extracurricular work tutoring had made Dylan passionate about the issue of inequality in education. He said he was also swayed by the personal attention he received from TFA. Throughout the recruiting process, and after he agreed to take a job with the nonprofit, Dylan received phone calls, postcards, and dinner invitations. He said JPMorgan didn't follow up with him after he initially accepted a job offer. He was also impressed by TFA's compensation and benefits package that he said would give him a quality of life comparable to his peers who planned to work in finance in the Baltimore area. The average starting teacher's salary in Maryland is $36,442, according to the National Education Assn.
"TFA has a partnership with Johns Hopkins University, where I will be able to get a master's degree in education for a fraction of the cost," O'Shea says. "So it seemed like an even better deal financially. When else am I going to have this opportunity while I'm young and single?"
Contrary to what many people might think, not every college graduate wants to become an i-banker. Grads are seizing on their independence and taking financial risks to explore careers in philanthropy, the arts, new media, and other industries—many of which offer lower salaries than Wall Street or a consultancy such as McKinsey. Like O'Shea, many are driven by passion. For others, it's Plan B: something to fall back on after finding that well-paid finance jobs are becoming increasingly elusive.
According to the National Association of Colleges & Employers (NACE), starting salaries for computer science majors rose 14.7%, while psychology majors saw a rise of 10.7%, and agricultural business majors saw an 11.2% increase. By contrast, there was a 0.3% increase in the starting salaries of business administration majors, and accounting salaries saw an increase of eight dollars, from $47,421 last year to $47,429 this year.
Looking Wider Afield
A tighter hiring market often makes students more flexible about their career plans, according to Marylin Mackes, executive director of the NACE. "They might consider other industries or locations. They'll work in Chicago as opposed to New York," Mackes says. Teach for America has seen a 36% increase in applications over last year, according to TFA.
After graduating from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2002, Chirag Shah decided to work for Bank of America (BAC). But four years later, an eye-opening trip to Kenya encouraged Shah to learn about microfinance, a method of development in which small loans are extended to low-income entrepreneurs. He quit his job and became a volunteer. Shah now works for no salary at the philanthropic Web site Kiva.org, which allows people to make microloans over the Internet.
"I'm not married. I don't have any kids. I'm independent and in my late 20s. I can still be a little bit selfish, and that's why I thought it'd be all right to take the gamble," Shah says. He doesn't regret starting his career in finance. He points out that the experience taught him the skills he now uses to help Kiva.org analyze its lender data and develop strategies for viral marketing. He does admit that peer pressure influenced his immediate post-grad plans. "Finance jobs are portrayed as the best jobs to go after. If you're a little bit competitive, that's the job that you strive for, because you don't know at the time there are other jobs out there," he says.
Indeed, the competitive spirit also thrives outside the financial sector. Kiva.org has been flooded with applications, and it has "become a bit of an administrative issue, finding an effective way to make use of all these [applicants'] skills," says CEO Joan Hamilton. Jobs in the arts are often also highly competitive, requiring previous work or internship experience. Christie's auction house recruits graduates from top schools and receives hundred of applications for a single opening, even though the starting salary at Christie's and rival auction house Sotheby's (BID)—at about $30,000, vs. the mid-40s for finance jobs—can't compare.
Interesting Work Is Paramount
Benefits and compensation are still important to the new generation of employees, but young adults put a premium elsewhere, says Phillip Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. "Interesting work" is the job characteristic ranked as most important by young adults participating in the institute's 2007 survey. The survey also shows that 50% of young people felt their career plans were "unfocused" and 65% were willing to "job surf"—explore opportunities at many different companies rather than staying at one.
Some employers are adjusting to meet the expectations of the new workforce. Dan Gerstein, founder and CEO of Gotham Ghostwriters, a New York speechwriting company, hopes to attract the next generation of talent by offering flexible hours and the opportunity to work freelance. According to Gerstein, a speechwriter working for a prominent client can make upward of $10,000 per speech, and he predicts that good writing, and especially good blogging, will be increasingly in demand.
"I had three people call me last week and ask me to find someone who can do blog writing," Gerstein says. "With older people who didn't grow up with blogs, there's a certain kind of [Web] illiteracy. A lot of companies and even PR firms don't have people on staff that can do this."
Those who prefer the ivory tower to the blogosphere may find fierce competition. Cutbacks in the financial sector will spur some students to continue their education, predicts Trudy Steinfeld, the executive director of the career development center at New York University. "I think next year we're going to really see the impact of the recession, as organizations will reevaluate what they're doing," she says. "There will be tremendous interest in graduate and professional schools."
Starving in a Garret?
Artists will have as tough a time as always, Steinfeld said. "Professions in the arts are always competitive, and the students know that going in, but they want to take their shot anyway."
Harvard grad Rob Dubbin knew the chances of making a living writing comedy were slim. He didn't even really know why he wanted to pursue such a risky career path. But the impulse was strong, and he spent almost two years in New York submitting samples of his work to potential employers. "Then I got lucky," Dubbin said. He got a job on The Colbert Report.
For comedy writers, like other members of the entertainment industry, there's always a chance to strike it rich. But even as aspiring artists toil in obscurity, without corporate credit cards or subsidized gym memberships, there are certain perks to working off Wall Street. Dubbin said that one of the best bonuses of his job is that he gets to laugh all day.
See BusinessWeek.com's slide show of jobs for graduates who want to make more than money.