Where (Harvard) Grads Are Heading

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Tracking the career and location decisions of graduating college students provides interesting clues about America's evolving economic landscape. New college grads are on the front-lines of rapidly changing economic circumstances making a series of inter-connected decisions about what job to take, what field to pursue, and what city and labor market to locate in.  And, because they are both highly skilled and highly mobile -  new college grads are three to five times more likely to move than, say, a 45-year-old - the locations they pick are likely to leave a lasting imprint on our economic geography.

In this context, a recent survey of Harvard's graduating class by the Harvard Crimson offers an interesting peek into how the crisis may be changing the career and locational calculations of talented young people.  Better yet, the Crimson has surveyed the graduating class for three consecutive years. I'm the first to admit it's a highly biased sample. But, it's also a very interesting one - tracking graduates from arguably the world's leading university. As such, it provides particularly useful signals about the kinds of jobs and the kinds of places such highly motivated, highly mobile young people are choosing.

The results of earlier surveys were fairly predictable. Harvard grads traditionally headed to consulting and investment banking jobs in NYC. But this year's findings - coming as they are in the midst of the economic and financial crisis - shed light on a variety of interesting and much speculated upon trends.

Still Getting Jobs: While stories about the worsening job prospects for college grads are legion, the economic and financial crises do not seem to have not significantly altered prospects for Harvard grads. This year, 59 percent of students lined up jobs prior to graduation - down not-too-terribly-much from 66 percent last year. This is understandable since Harvard grads are headed into professional, knowledge, and creative occupations which have the lowest rates of unemployment and since they signal top talent.

That said, career choices are certainly shifting along some predictable and some not-so-predictable lines.

Finance and Consulting Fade:  As expected, far fewer grads are headed to finance and consulting. But, this figure has been consistently trending down over the past three years - falling from 47 percent in 2007 to 39 percent in 2008 to 20 percent this year. The numbers of grads headed into finance fell from  23 percent last year to 11.5 percent this year, while consulting dropped from 16 percent to 8.5 percent.

Education and Health Care Gain: More grads are headed to education and health care. Education is up from 10 to 15 percent of grads. Health care increased from 6 to 12 percent.

Government Down, Slightly: Despite the conventional view that government work is becoming more attractive - both because it is growing and it is stable - the share of grads taking jobs in government fell slightly from 4.5 percent last year to 3 percent this year. The Crimson notes this could be considered a "paradoxical trend given the Democratic victories in the 2008 elections and the fact that 74 percent of Harvard seniors describe themselves as more liberal or considerably more liberal than the average American."

I think it's more in sync with past trends actually. Having taught public policy students for the better part of three decades, I've noticed a long-running trend away from traditional government work which is perceived as overly hierarchical and bureaucratic. Public service and cause-oriented students I've come across prefer work in smaller scale, more flexible non-profits where they believe they can have more immediate impact. The Crimson reports that "programs like Teach for America... received applications from a record-setting 14 percent of Harvard seniors, according to data released by the organization." 

What They Really Want to Do: The survey asked: grads what what career they would choose "if finances were not a concern." To my mind, this is the most interesting question of all.  The Number One field: the arts, with 16 percent choosing it as their "dream field," followed by public service (12.5 percent) and education (12 percent). Finance and consulting captured the "dreams" of just five percent each.

Top Cities: Check out the great map below. The greater Boston area is the top destination - reinforcing the point that having an elite university (or more) in your local backyard can be a considerable talent advantage. And since after-college moves are the pinnacle of mobility it can be a lasting one. Cities might do better by focusing a little bit less on luring "ex-pats" back home, and a little more on retaining the college grads that have already chosen them.

New York has fallen from its previous top spot. D.C. is down just a tad - even with the new heavily Harvard Obama administration and the southern shift in the nation's financial and economic nerve center. Small percentages are headed to the South or the Midwest, with Chicago drawing just 1.3 percent of grads.

Seventeen percent of grads are going abroad. Some might look at this as a tale of shrinking U.S. opportunities versus improving foreign ones,but I look at it as a very positive sign for the future.

harvard grads.jpg

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Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More

Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here
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