The Challenge of This Tough Job Market

I have been talking a lot to my students about the job market many of them will face this May. Believe it or not, this is mostly a good news story.  One of my jobs at Columbia University is to direct and teach in the environmental policy programs at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). One of these programs is a one-year Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy that is a joint project with the Earth Institute. The other is a two-year program in environmental policy.  I advise about 100 master’s students at SIPA. Currently, 75 are looking for jobs and the others are looking for summer internships.

Over the past month we have been hosting a variety of events to help our students prepare for this very difficult job market. At the first event, about 50 of our alumni and even more of our current students spent most of a Saturday afternoon in early February sharing insights about the current state of the field in environment and sustainability management.

In our second event, the staff at SIPA’s Office of Career Services and I devoted an hour of class time to a strategy session with about 55 graduating students. Later this week, the Earth Institute hosts a career fair for students in the environmental and sustainable development programs at all the schools in the Ivy League. Last year 78 organizations staffed exhibits at the fair, this year only 69 will be present. According to my colleague Louise Rosen, Director of the Earth Institute’s Office of Academic and Research Programs, “Forty of the organizations that participated in the past several years have told us they are not able to take part this year because they are either not hiring or don’t have the resources to go out and recruit new staff.”

Louise and her staff have worked extraordinarily hard to find new employers to replace the old ones they’ve lost, and they have been very successful in their efforts. However, this is the toughest employment market I have ever seen. What this shows, of course, is that what was easy before has now become more difficult. But it also demonstrates success is still possible. We face an extremely tough economic environment – even for some of the brightest and best-trained young people in the world. But the situation is far from impossible. While the stock market continues its slow-motion decline, the talent, energy and idealism of the generation that first responded to President Obama’s message of hope continues to say “Yes we can.”

And yes they are. They are demonstrating some of that toughness that before the era of supersized fast food, big-screen TVs and endless shopping, represented the essence of the American ethos. They know what they are up against, but they also know that the future belongs to those that are well educated and prepared to participate in the emerging green economy. They will simply work harder than their predecessors to find or make the opportunities they seek to make this world a better place. To see them, talk to them and teach them is to be optimistic about America’s prospect for recovery.

Nevertheless, this situation remains frightening to the core. If the top students in America’s elite universities are apprehensive about the current job market, what about the rest of young America? Tales of job loss and suffering have punctuated the story of this endless winter. Food banks are busier than ever. Homeless shelters are filled to capacity. The sight of for sale signs and the trauma of home foreclosures are everywhere.  Everyone now knows someone who has lost his or her job.

While it is clear that greed, stupidity and irresponsibility caused the financial breakdown, very few Americans are greedy, stupid and irresponsible. This nation has assets in place that continue to provide me with hope, and on some days, confidence. The first is the determination and talent of my students. The second is the determination, talent and inspirational voice of our new president. While the usual interest groups are lining up for the titanic battle to restore business as usual, President Obama and his team know that the old paradigm has shifted. 

There really is no choice. One of the reasons Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal sounded so silly in his now infamous response to President Obama’s fiscal recovery speech before Congress, is that the same old words sounded absurd.  Private enterprise and market economies can accomplish great things, but they can’t accomplish everything. New Orleans fell because of gross negligence by our government, and it will only come back after hundreds of billions of public dollars are spent on its restoration. 

I see the ideology of the past quarter century receding, replaced by the pragmatism of this generation of students and our new president. These are tough and challenging times. We need to be just as tough to meet the challenge. It is going to be difficult, but I believe we will succeed.