On Careers and Public Service

David Brooks has an interesting article out on the career choices of young chronic overachievers.  It stems from Ezra Klein's interesting theory that so many top college graduates go into finance and consulting because liberal arts educations give them no marketable skills: 

For many kids, college represents an end goal. Once you get into a good college, you’ve made it, and everyone stops worrying about you. You’re encouraged to take classes in subjects like English literature and history and political science, all of which are fine and interesting, but none of which leave you with marketable skills. After a few years of study, you suddenly find it’s late in your junior year, or early in your senior year, and you have no skills pointing to the obvious next step.

So one applies to Bain, Goldman and the like, which are comfortingly similar to the process of applying to a Harvard or Stanford.  Stanford Professor Rob Reich then provoked a barnstorm of a facebook conversation by asking whether folks agreed, which David Brooks provides some excellent perspective to:

The student discussion was smart, civil and illuminating. But I was struck by the unspoken assumptions. Many of these students seem to have a blinkered view of their options. There’s crass but affluent investment banking. There’s the poor but noble nonprofit world. And then there is the world of high-tech start-ups, which magically provides money and coolness simultaneously. But there was little interest in or awareness of the ministry, the military, the academy, government service or the zillion other sectors.

True that.  He also make an important, though somewhat smug, point about the need for moralilty:

When I read the Stanford discussion thread, I saw young people with deep moral yearnings. But they tended to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions; questions about how to be into questions about what to do.

It’s worth noting that you can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero. Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job.

I suppose my perspective on the issue can best be summarized by pointing to a recent retirement of a longtime EMWD employee:

The Perris-headquartered water district hired Wyatt as a student worker in the summer of 1962, while he was attending Hemet High School. He was assigned the job of exercising valves, which required being outdoors in the summer heat. That did not deter him and he became a fulltime employee — and member of the survey crew — after high school graduation and while taking classes at Mt. San Jacinto and Riverside City colleges.

Wyatt planned to become an engineer but his interest in the water industry was a result of his internship at EMWD. Starting out as a civil engineering aide junior, he became California’s first registered construction inspector two years later.

He continued to earn promotions through hard work and achieved his current position as director of field engineering in 1990. Wyatt is in charge of EMWD’s inspectors and handles most of the coordination for its construction projects.

“Jim’s department handles construction management and on-site inspections for capital improvement projects,” said Michele Burris, executive assistant in field engineering. She has worked with Wyatt for the past 10 years. “Currently the department is handling construction projects totaling $378 million.”

Burris said Wyatt became the “go-to guy” of the district.

“He is EMWD’s encyclopedia,” she said, adding that his extensive knowledge and experience will be impossible to replace.