By Angela Beibei Bao
Siwen Fan landed her internship at Moody’s Investors Service last May. Eight hours a day during the summer and sixteen hours a week in the fall, Siwen did fixed income research in the Strategic Planning division, a small initiative at Moody’s, where she directly reported to a Vice President.
“My boss is pretty strict. She expected you to hit the ground running, but as an intern I didn’t really know what to do,” said Siwen, who wore an elegantly cut, brown woolen coat and a bright orange Michael Kors skirt, recalling her first few days into the job. “But you naturally learn more with a pushy boss.”
Siwen, a 24 year old from northeastern China and a second-year MIA concentrating in IFEP, graduated from a top Chinese university. She used to regard entering the United Nations as her “ultimate goal” until she took an internship at UN Women last spring, where she found her administrative position lacking challenge. “No matter what you did, [the supervisors] would say, ‘Good job!’” She smiled. “They were really nice, but I clearly knew it would not be my first job.” While seeking more intensive training, Siwen saw her hourly pay grow from zero to a handsome $30.
Siwen is not alone. In 2010, nearly half of MIAs ended up in the private sector, according to the school’s employment statistics. The ratio soared by more than one third from the previous year. MPAs showed a similar pattern. Among all the fancy job flyers posted in front of the Office of Career Services (OCS), a question naturally emerges: is SIPA becoming a pipeline to the private sector?
From 2005 to 2010, the private-sector job ratio for MIAs grew and peaked in 2007 at 47.2 percent—nearly as much as the public and nonprofit combined—and declined to 34.0 percent in 2009 along with the economic downturn, and then rebounded back to 45.6 percent in 2010. The change in the percentage going to public services is a perfect mirror image: it rose to 36.5 percent in 2009, the worst year, from 29.4 percent four years ago, and plummeted by one third in 2010, as the economy picked up.
“Money is a very important issue,” said Dylan Meagher, a 32-year-old New Yorker and a first-year energy concentrator. Dylan previously had a six-year “walkabout” in Taiwan, teaching English there and traveling around South Asia. Neither was a money-making business. Upon graduation, Dylan will have accumulated loans totaling $100,000. “About one third of the population at SIPA will be in my situation,” he said.
For students with loan debt, the private-sector salary is no small lure. In 2010, the median salary difference between the private and public sector was as much as $27,000, according to the OCS, a figure more than what a quarter of New York families earn in a year (U.S. Census Bureau).
Dylan, with little experience in private business, applied to an internship at McKinsey & Company last November. Asked if he liked the business of McKinsey, Dylan smiled, shook his head and sighed. “I thought I did know a lot about consulting,” he said, speaking of his experience advising Taiwan’s Ministry of Education, “so why don’t I use that to land an internship and a job and pay off my loan first?”
But Dylan didn’t get an interview. Still, he seems to favor private business, at least for now, and money is not the only reason. “I have met NGO people, and they like partying more than helping,” he said. “Business people like partying too, but they do help.”
However, for Fritz Florian Bachmair, a former consultant at McKinsey, things look different. Having worked at McKinsey and Goldman Sachs for several years, Fritz, a first-generation college student from Austria, whose parents still plant maize and wheat in Neuhofen, is now considering working for international organizations like the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) after he graduates.
Unlike Siwen, Fritz said public jobs were more “intellectually stimulating.” For private businesses, “goals are always simple,” said Fritz, who holds an MBA from Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien in Vienna. For example, to increase profit, there are only two ways: increase revenue or lower cost. But if one wanted to enhance food security, “you need to care about many other issues, like how to redistribute food, who will win and who will lose,” he said. “This would allow me to better play to my strengths.”
Money is not Fritz’s concern. He received a free education from the Austrian government, even for the MBA, and pocketed enough money from McKinsey to fund his education at SIPA. But work-life balance is important. He regularly worked from 8:30 am to 11:00 pm as a consultant. “This is not what we were born to do,” he said.
Public businesses have a better balance, yet Fritz was unsatisfied with the market mechanism that underpays its professionals.
“If you work on climate change, the benefit you bring to the society is not fully priced,” he said. “To make the whole population all altruistic is very difficult.”
“[First] I need food on my plate, and then I can think about Bangladesh and food on their plate,” added Fritz.
But now you don’t need to be in the public sector to do public good, thanks to the increasing bridge between private and public services such as contractor relationship, said Meg Heenehan, the executive director of OCS.
“When I came here 15 years ago, if you wanted to go to the defense sector, you went to the Department of Defense, but now you can go to a consulting firm that does international security policy case,” she said. The shifting landscape may partly explain why there are an increasing number of SIPA graduates ending up in the private sector.
Fritz echoed Mrs. Heenehan’s point, saying he helped develop a “breadbasket” strategy for improving agricultural productivity in the Northern Region of Ghana when he was with McKinsey. There are also some SIPA alumni went to the Citi Foundation or the Coca-Cola Foundation, both are private entities but inherently public.
“A very long time ago, 98 to 99 percent of MPA students would go to the public sector, but now they are gradually moving to the private and still have social impact,” Mrs. Heenehan said. “It’s exciting to see all these opportunities for SIPA graduates.”
Whether in the public, private or nonprofit, “you have a Columbia brand, you have to take advantage of it,” Dylan said.
Angela Beibei Bao is a first-year dual-degree student at SIPA and Columbia Journalism School. This story first appeared in the January 31st issue of Communiqué.