The Donald calls it “our depression.” He’s talking about the economy, not our mood – but I think he intends the double entendre. Technically, it is a deep recession, but one with soaring unemployment and plunging retirement account values. That combination is forcing thousands of American managers and executives in their 30’s and 40’s to rethink their career path – and many more in their 50’s and 60’s to revamp retirement plans. Those changes -- coupled with new legislation out of Washington – could spark a commitment to public service not seen since the 1960’s.
Volunteering is not new for out-of-work execs or senior corporate folk who have recently retired. Historically, those ex-executives have the means to retire comfortably or “hang out” for a while until the next senior position presents itself. But this unprecedented economic climate is turning some of those stereotypes on their ear.
Two quick examples – and then a probable solution. I spoke to a friend this weekend who had been an executive at one of the headline-grabbing banks now partially owned by Uncle Sam. He had been quite successful there for the past 15 years but got his walking papers late in ’08 as part of sweeping downsizing. Given the supply of top jobs (shrinking) and the toxic (forgive the adjective choice) working environment at most major banks these days, he really doesn’t want to continue with what had been his career. While he is considering a redirected career path in some other part of the private sector, he told me he has been strongly considering the path of public service – government, teaching or non-profit organizational leadership. And I’m hearing this kind of thing a lot these days.
Second example: a 60-something acquaintance of mine who retired “early” about five years ago after a solidly successful career as an executive. His health is superb – better than when he was working – but his 401k is not so superb. In fact, he has lost more than the average Joe – about 45% of the value back in 2007. So, as he sits here today, he is facing a longer-than-expected life span and a shorter runway of funds to support his desired and accustomed lifestyle. Given his age and the contractions in the private sector, he too is looking at the public sector.
One external initiative could accelerate opportunities for the people like them. President Obama is expected to sign the Edward M. Kennedy National Service Act soon. The bill is designed to encourage more Americans to commit to national service and expand opportunities for them to do so. AmeriCorps, which links volunteers nationwide with local needs in education, health care and infrastructure -- will be tripled to 250,000 slots. For older Americans, in particular, and also for mid-lifers looking for a second career act, the legislation will create a series of programs that will help direct retirees into new roles in nonprofit and public service, on the front lines and in management. (As an example, check out a pilot program in California called “Encore Fellows.”)
The federal government is also working hard to improve its recruiting and talent management approach. The Partnership for Public Service has been encouraging the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to do more in the areas of employer branding, recruiting process improvement, applicant tracking, and talent development and retention. There should be obvious opportunities for people with deep knowledge of how the private sector works – and for those with skills in technology, health care, infrastructure and energy.
Regardless one’s view of a pending recovery, it’s clear to most people that we are now living in different times. The public sector is already different – and there are many changes in store in the next decade that may make it a far more attractive place to launch that second or third career – or for former execs to parachute back onto the battlefield for another round of challenges and opportunities.