Giving Government a Chance

When applying to business school, BusinessWeek's MBA Journal gave me a sense of what to expect at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business when it came to classes such as optimization, operations, probability, and presentations, as well as the dynamic relationships I could develop with other students. But business school is ultimately professional training; classes only "count" to a point. In the end, the critical benchmark will be the graduate's ability to perform in the marketplace. And the progress to such sufficiency is typically on display during the internship between the first and second years of a full-time MBA program.

While the world's economies continue hovering perilously, nothing about the most recent internship hunt has been typical. In fact, if Tepper is any indication, the 2009 summer internship hunt has gone so awry that many of the most qualified applicants (including the vast majority of international students) are winding up empty-handed—with the notable exception of our entrepreneurs, who maintain their lookout for opportunities and a chance to push the bar on innovation.

The potential reverberations of such a grim reality are disconcerting: Human resource professionals have notoriously short memories, so what will happen if the economy improves by next summer, and hiring managers from companies nationwide conveniently forget how difficult it was to find an internship in 2009? Or worse yet, what if they determine that those who didn't secure a summer opportunity must have been less qualified than their fortunate peers, and so begin rejecting even the most qualified applicants from full-time positions? Round and round we go: Every standing and ranking suffers.

Luxury of HindsightIf anything positive has emerged from this year's traumatic internship search, it is these two lessons: (1) Sometimes the most exciting opportunities emerge from the least expected sources; and (2) job hunting is akin to dating (and my oft-repeated, feeble attempts at humor)—that is, the more often you throw something against the wall, the more likely it is to stick.

Of course, I have the luxury of hindsight. I'm writing this journal entry in the middle of my summer internship, which started a bit earlier than most and stands to have a broader impact as well. You see, I'm working at the highest levels of the federal government, within a 35-second stroll of the White House, and I have a unique opportunity to leverage strategic business-to-business and consumer marketing analytics in the cauldron of our country's nerve center. I'm consciously combining the quantitative skills I picked up at Tepper, the negotiation skills I honed at Boston University, and five years of new media marketing experience I developed before business school to balance political realities and technological demands across agency teams and improve the performance, organization, and infrastructure underlying the government's recruitment system.

It turns out that this massive task is perfectly suited to my background. But despite my passion for public service—and the rare but critical opportunity to bring cutting-edge management science into the public sphere—I got this job as a fluke. For a time, I wasn't completely clear on precisely the difference between the Office of Management & Budget (where I work) and the Government Accountability Office. (Turns out that OMB develops the budget proactively, whereas GAO monitors performance retroactively.) I knew I'd hate spending hours crunching data sets, and although OMB actively recruits at Carnegie Mellon's Heinz School of Public Policy, Tepper seemed like something of an afterthought. Still, after researching OMB, the position, the office, and its relationship to the rest of the executive branch, I knew the internship would be ideal. So I emphasized as much to a CMU alum working here, who thankfully took sufficient interest to arrange an interview for me. The rest, as they say, is history.

Government Gilds a ResumeMBAs in the executive branch are few and far between. Is it hard to understand why? Start with the numbers: According to the latest data provided by the Tepper Career Opportunities Center (COC), the school's mean post-MBA starting salary was $103,407 in 2008 (not including signing bonuses and indirect compensation), even with the downward employment swing. A comparable entry point in government would have a roughly $30,000 lower base salary, without the fringe perks.

But one doesn't go into government for the money. Among the understated benefits of working at the height of American political power is that most every company, large and small, wants a chance to harness the insights about people and process that are gained by working inside what is essentially the country's largest corporation. In other words, finding a job should be a relative snap after working in management for the federal government.

Government service is known to be mission-driven and competitively neutral—and loyalty is certainly an important consideration for full-time employers. That is to say, one who chooses to serve his or her country has not opted to work for a competitor; MBA graduates who spend time working for the White House, the Federal Reserve, Congress, or any related agency won't suffer a post-facto perception of conflict, competition, or bias. If anything, companies tend to be more inclined to hire government employees—especially from the managerial ranks—because of the inherent value of their high-level networks.

Since the government isn't excellent at marketing the non-monetary reasons for working here, it's critical for MBA candidates to realize that the U.S. is among the world's largest consumers of best practices in strategy, operations, accounting, finance, information technology, marketing, customer relationship management, and corporate social responsibility. There's room to grow, develop, and venture here.

A final note: The past year's experience has been far from typical, but it's critical for candidates to keep their wits. For so many without official internships, alternative ways of being productive during the summer—say, by starting a business, or completing a certification course—will pay added dividends by avoiding a three-month résumé gap while simultaneously achieving a professional milestone. You might be thinking to yourself, "But doesn't every company realize how treacherous the employment situation is right now?" The answer is yes, but a handful of companies see a down economy as a cue to shop for talent at a bargain. Even on campus, some corporations risked their brands in the name of convenience by behaving without concern for students' time or efforts. A creative way of staying busy hedges (B-school-speak) against the panic inherent in finding a job, while upping the ante for the companies that value talent as a long-term asset.

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