A sector where jobs are booming gets surprisingly little attention

By Eric Schwarz, co-founder and CEO of College for Social Innovation
Eric Schwarz, Co-Founder and CEO of College for Social Innovation

The nonprofit sector represents a large and fast-growing part of the U.S. economy and yet jobs in this sector are often ignored by recent college graduates when they start careers.

In Massachusetts, to take one example, 18 percent of all jobs are in the state’s nonprofit sector, a greater share than in the manufacturing and finance sectors combined.  An additional 12 percent of full-time jobs held by Massachusetts residents are in government at the local, state, or federal level. And more still are in the so-called social impact business sector — for-profit businesses with an explicit social purpose, such as certified B corporations.

In the U.S. as a whole, the nonprofit sector is now the second-largest jobs category behind only retail. And while corporate profits boom on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, employment is booming faster in the nonprofit sector, with 20 percent growth in jobs between 2005 and 2015, and 32 percent growth in total wages after adjusting for inflation during the same 10-year period, according to an Urban Institute report.

Social impact jobs also pay better than expected and are competitive with average for-profit jobs, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Further, the outsize growth of jobs in the social impact sector is likely to continue. Because of automation, we need fewer people than in the past to make all the cars, steel, and smartphones the world could possibly use. But, at the same time, we need more people to take care of the elderly, teach the young, and build civil society.

Interestingly, despite the size and robust growth of the social impact sector — and despite a stated interest of some young people in “making a positive impact on their community or society at large” — relatively few young people are signing up. An analysis of data from Handshake, the leading jobs site for college students and recent graduates, indicates that just 11.5 percent of applications submitted on the platform are for jobs in the social impact sector (nonprofits plus government), even though these jobs represent more than one-quarter of all those that are available nationally.

Why? If there are good and growing job opportunities in the social impact world — jobs doing important work in health care, education, social services, the arts, and human rights — why are so few college students applying for them?

We can’t be sure. Maybe it’s just a perception gap with young people wary of government and seeing the nonprofit world as a place to volunteer but not to build a career. But another reason may be that colleges and training programs have been slow to adapt their offerings and slow to build the academic and co-curricular programs that could build the skills, networks, and awareness needed to connect to the fast-growing social impact sector.

College for Social Innovation (CfSI) is developing one promising model to help prepare students for growing opportunities as change-makers and problem solvers. In partnership with 13 leading public and private colleges and universities in New England, including three of the region’s six flagship public universities, CfSI is testing the idea of an immersive and fully-credited Semester in the City with learning built primarily around a 400-hour internship in a social impact organization. A recently finished three-year pilot of the model generated promising learning and career results, results consistent with research from Gallup on the power of mentorship and work-based learning experiences for college students.

Watch WorkingNation’s Do Something Awesome mini-doc on CfSI: First Boston. Next, the world: Internships to Spark Change

Semester in the City internships are paired with classes that build change-maker skills, such as design thinking, persuasive communication, and the ability to work effectively in diverse teams — the same skills employers are looking for to address a well-documented skills gap between what employers need in a worker and what college students typically learn. Students in the program cite its immersive work-based learning plus reflection and skill-building classes as transformative.

“Semester in the City allowed me to connect the dots between my passions and skills so that I can design a career that will make me happy,” said Crystal Napoli, a 2017 participant in the program and a 2018 graduate of University of New Hampshire, who is now working at Community Crossroads, a human services agency in New Hampshire.

To be sure, a majority of young people will continue to seek out jobs in the for-profit sector, which is, after all, still home to almost three-quarters of all full-time jobs in the U.S. and the majority of jobs that pay very high salaries. But for college students and others seeking stable careers where they can do good (in the world) and do well (financially), there are literally millions of opportunities in the social impact world. In addition, students fearing a potential upcoming recession would do well to note that social impact jobs are more stable during economic downturns. In the last recession, from 2007 to 2010, the number of jobs in the nonprofit sector grew by six percent while for-profit sector jobs shrunk by seven percent.

Finally, the reality for all students — whether they want to work as social change-makers or for a traditional finance or business firm — is that employers are increasingly looking for a new set of skills, skills like design thinking, the ability to work well on diverse teams, and the ability to communicate persuasively through data and stories. Students should be asking their colleges for more opportunities to build and practice these skills before they graduate, helping to ensure a smoother transition from college to career.

Eric Schwarz is the co-founder and CEO of College for Social Innovation and a member of the WorkingNation Advisory Board. He is the author of The Opportunity Equation.

College for Social Innovation is a WorkingNation partner.