College Grads Seek Meaningful Jobs Over High Salaries

PHOTO: college graduate Jon Pilisercourtesy of Jon Piliser
Recent college graduate Jon Piliser now works for Teach For America, a program that recruits recent college graduates to teach in low-income communities.

Jon Piliser is employed, but that doesn't mean he knows what he wants to do for a living.

"I don't really have any career objectives right now," he said. Piliser, 22, graduated from Columbia University last spring. Now he teaches 11th grade and AP English at a high school in New Mexico for Teach For America, a program that recruits recent college graduates to teach in low-income communities.

But Teach For America isn't a long-term plan. It requires only a two-year commitment from its members.

After his two years are over, Piliser doesn't know if his career plans will be any clearer.

"I would love to have a year where I could just travel, relax or figure out more on what I want to do," he said. "I don't know what I'm doing after TFA."

Career counselors are observing a generational shift in students' attitudes toward work.

John Hotard, a career counselor at Hotard Associates and the former Director of Career Services at the Stern business school at NYU, said today's college graduate is more altruistic and looking for fulfilling jobs over higher salaries.

"I've noticed the younger generation, the last five years, is much more open minded," Hotard said. "They're definitely open to adventure, and they're looking to be happy."

Seeking Out the Service Industry

In the last few years, nonprofits have begun hiring more people according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. While 45 percent took jobs in the private sector in 2008, only 38.8 percent did the next year. In the nonprofit sector, hiring grew from 13.9 percent to 17.1 in the same time period.

Hotard thinks this trend is influenced by both the economy and Generation Y's preferences.

"The economy is kind of bad anyway, so there's no reason to go into unpleasant work," he said. "They instinctively try and make the best with what they're offered. I've also noticed the younger generation is much more concerned with giving back."

Short-term service programs, such as Teach For America and the Peace Corps have seen a growth in applications over the last five years.

This year, TFA received 48,000 applications for about 4,000 slots. Over the past five years, TFA has seen its applicant pool grow an average 20 percent each year.

The Peace Corps is seeing similar numbers. The number of applicants grew 33 percent in the six year time period between 2003 and 2009.

Even smaller, local organizations are seeing increased interest.

The Language Corps, a Massachusetts-based program that coordinates teaching English abroad, is reporting a 38 percent increase in applications and a 25 percent increase in enrollment from last year.

Mike Cahill, Director of Career Services at Syracuse University says he's observed students seeking short-term service oriented positions over the last few years.

"It's so much of a change from what students 20-30 years ago were looking at," he said. "It used to be, 'I want to work for an employer that I like, rise up through the ranks, and stick with them for awhile.' We're not really seeing that interest in that level of commitment anymore."

Hotard is seeing more Gen Y's looking for happiness and fulfilling jobs over the highest paying positions.

"Their grandparents generation were much more nervous about money, and their parents in their 50s-60s are more anxious about their retirements and economy and more conservative," he said. "Young people, it's a good trend that they want to do nonprofits, go abroad and teach, and I don't think it's just because the economy is bad, but I think it's a real generational shift."

Today, 75 percent of Gen Y's career choices are motivated by a work-life balance, according to survey by TNS Global Market Research, an international consulting company that researches market trends.

Taking Time Off After Graduation

Devin Conway, 24, graduated from Dickinson College with a philosophy degree in 2009. He always knew he wanted to go to law school, but didn't want to do it right away. Instead, he decided to teach English in South Korea for a year and apply to law school after that.

"I felt like I didn't want to get locked into one thing," Conway said. "I felt like I was still really young. There were a lot of opportunities out there and law school would be waiting for me when I came home again."

Conway left for Daegu, South Korea, in July of 2009. After his one year teaching commitment was through, he still wasn't ready to return to the U.S. He took another month to travel around Southeast Asia, visiting Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Now that he has been home for eight months, Conway is preparing to take the next step. He has been accepted to Boston University Law School and plans to attend in the fall.

"I don't see a problem with taking a year off, going out and seeing the world, figuring out what you want to do with your life," Conway said.

Additionally, he said, the experience can help strengthen your application for graduate school by diversifying yourself.

"I think a lot of people are having a hard time getting into grad school at this particular point…and a lot more people are taking a year off, going abroad, living in the city or taking classes," he said.

"A lot of the people I graduated with are just now starting to apply for graduate programs."

Though grad school is still her goal, Lauren LaDolcetta admits that going back to the classroom is easier said than done. After graduating from Dartmouth last spring, she took a job with a public relations agency instead of applying to law school, which had always been her plan. She said she felt burnt out of after her four years of college and wanted a break from the classroom setting.

"It's really hard to go back to school once you've had work experience and you're getting that paycheck," she said. "To sort of lose that momentum is a disadvantage. A lot of people who say they're going to take time off don't end up going back."

That's why LaDolcetta has set a deadline for herself and plans to attend graduate school in 2012 -- although she had originally planned on starting in 2011.

Finding A Career Focus

Though happy in his position with Teach For America, Piliser said it's not everyone.

"There are people in my corps and other people I know who are doing it who are not that happy. If you're just doing it to put it on your resume or you think it'll be really fun, then I think you should really rethink it," he said.

"It really depends on the person."

Hotard said going abroad after college or exploring in different industries to find the right fit can be a good thing, but to those people he offers this advice: "Get some focus," he said. "Have a general idea of what your life focus will be, or else it won't be the best use of your time."

Hotard said finding a focus starts with understanding your "natural proclivities," that is whether you gravitate to sciences, serving others, the arts, or other types of jobs. Once you have a focus, find an internship to explore that area further.

"I work with people who are in their mid-20s and they're lost and they've made that mistake of not focusing on what they like to do."

When advising his students, Cahill said he is hard-pressed to find disadvantages to this route.

"Sometimes you can have a road map that's taking you directly to your goal. Sometimes just pulling off an exit for a little while can expose you to even greater wonders of the world, a greater experience that can instruct the rest of your journey." contributor Danielle Waugh is a member of the ABC News on Campus program in Syracuse, N.Y.

ABC News on Campus reporter Clay LePard contributed to this report.