TOPICS > Economy

Business Students Rethink Wall Street Plans

June 15, 2009 at 6:25 PM EDT
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After the economic slump scuttled their plans to enter the financial sector, business students at Duke University look at different alternatives, such as graduate school, or rethink their career paths altogether. Judy Woodruff talks to some recent graduates in the second part of her Generation Next series.

JIM LEHRER: Now the second of our reports on Generation Next. Judy Woodruff is examining how young people are coping with the recession. She recently went to Duke University in North Carolina, where she talked to graduates who are having a tough time finding jobs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Over the past two decades, it became a tradition of sorts. Following the pomp and circumstance of commencement, many graduates from the most elite liberal arts schools in the country packed their bags and headed for Wall Street to seek their fortunes in the world of finance.

Salaries and bonuses for new graduates often topped $100,000 a year, according to students we talked with at my alma mater, Duke University.

VANECIE DELVA: To be able to make that much right out of school as an undergrad was kind of insane. So I guess my first taste of the money was sophomore year when I had the scholarship programs that gave us compensation. It was over time. It was a scholarship. It was like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m rich.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: At Duke and many of the other most competitive colleges and universities, finance had become one of the most attractive fields to enter, even more than law or medicine. It was a magnet career for the best and the brightest.

But the meltdown in the financial markets has shaken those assumptions and scrambled the future for many students here.

Job offers grow scarce

Griffin Tormey was an economics major and a manager for the Duke basketball team. He had hoped to get a Wall Street job by going through the usual recruiting process.

Duke is considered a core recruiting school by New York investment banks and consulting firms. In past years, they would court hundreds of students for internships and jobs.

But not this year. Campus visits by banks were down 15 percent and, as at other schools, the job offers were scarce. In fact, according to a survey this spring by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, banks expected to hire 70 percent fewer people this year than last.

Tormey was one of many Duke seniors who didn't get an offer, so he's now pounding the pavement looking for alternatives, one of which is graduate school. Through it all, he's tried to remain positive.

GRIFFIN TORMEY: You know, it stressed me out a little bit at first, but there's no sense in beating yourself up and worrying about stuff that's entirely outside of your control. I mean, we really didn't have any role in what happened in September.

So you've got to do the best you can do every day and, you know, at the end of the day, if you can look yourself in the mirror and say, "Hey, you know, I did everything I can do today," then you've got to feel good.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Not all students have remained so upbeat. We contacted dozens of Duke students who were unable to get the jobs or internships they wanted, but they said they were too discouraged to talk about it on camera.

Econ Professor Emma Rasiel, who works with students to help them find jobs, says she's not surprised.

EMMA RASIEL, professor of economics: It is very difficult for many of them. Many of them have had Wall Street in their sights since relatively early in their career at Duke. That's been some sort of a Holy Grail.

And they're having to adjust to the fact that, however hard they've worked and however well they've done, there are any number of qualified students who would do great in these jobs, but the banks simply have fewer spaces for them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that was the case for honor students and history major Rachael Nordlinger.

RACHEL NORDLINGER: There came a point when actually all of my older friends were going into either banking or consulting. And I got very swept up in that idea, because it seemed like it was the natural progression for me after college, because if everybody else was doing this, then I should, too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Since she had an internship with the bank UBS last summer, she assumed the company would offer her a job after graduation. But soon after the banking industry took a nose dive, she learned there wouldn't be a position for her.

Although Nordlinger was initially disappointed, she said it ultimately forced her to really think about what she wants in a career. She interviewed and got a teaching job at a low-performing school in New York City through the nonprofit organization Teach for America.

RACHEL NORDLINGER: I'm looking to make a connection with students. I think that a lot of people don't know that education is really the ticket to success. And it's something that I really believe, so I think by just going there and getting people excited about academics, excited about school, and showing them that they can use that to succeed.

Shifting sights to social justice

JUDY WOODRUFF: So called social justice jobs are fast becoming an alternative for many would-be investment bankers. Nationwide, Teach for America says applications were up 42 percent this year, and it has become the number-one employer of Duke graduates.

Sociology major Vanecie Delva also finds herself unexpectedly about to do some nonprofit work in the coming year. She is one of the fortunate Duke grads who was offered an investment banking job at Credit Suisse following her summer internship last year.

Delva, who was raised by a single mother of five, says it was a relief to know she would have a job.

VANECIE DELVA: So by first semester, I knew I was -- I had an offer. I'm fine. I had an offer. I'm secure. I don't have to worry about anything.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But then, just a few weeks before graduation, Credit Suisse asked Delva and others to take a voluntary deferment for one year and receive a small stipend in return. The bank said it had to reduce the number of analysts it could bring on because of the faltering economy.

VANECIE DELVA: I got a phone call actually from a fellow analyst who's a future co-worker. He was like, "This means that, you know, things are probably worse than we know about. And I'm not sure if we're going to actually have a job." And I signed up for Credit Suisse to work there like right after undergrad, and I was like, "Dude, calm down. I think it's an opportunity." So he didn't see the silver lining.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Delva did. She chose to take the one-year deferment and accompanying stipend and hopes to travel the globe pursuing one of her other passions, dance. She'll also volunteer in poor communities in India and Thailand.

You worked really hard here at Duke. You're graduating, and suddenly this job is delayed. What's your mom saying about that?

VANECIE DELVA: My mom is a huge inspiration to me. I'm one of five kids, and she's basically raised us all on her own, little to nothing income, and yet I've never, like, yearned for anything. She's always been motivating, encouraging and supportive. And like you were saying, what does my mom think? She's like, "Do whatever your heart desires."

Backup plans

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even graduates who are going immediately into the world of finance know their future is far from certain. Daniela Rausnitz was an econ major and founded a women in business organization on campus. She starts a job with JPMorgan in the fall.

DANIELA RAUSNITZ: Even when I tell people what I'm doing next year, they go, "Oh, are you nervous about that? Do you have any backup plans?" And it's almost like, you know, people are looking down upon the job because of all the negative publicity and also the instability.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you have a conversation with somebody who says, "Gee, do you have a backup? Are you sure? Did you make the right decision?" what do you say to them?

DANIELA RAUSNITZ: Well, personally, I feel that I don't have a backup. I don't think that's the right way to be living my life. I have this job, and I'm going to go into it with a mindset that, if I do a good job, I'll be capable of staying there and learning. And if not, then that's not what's meant to be and another opportunity will arise.

Upsides to the downturn

JUDY WOODRUFF: Duke career counselor David Lapinski, who himself worked on Wall Street before moving to academia, says he thinks the upside to the downturn in the economy is that it's making students broaden their career horizons.

DAVID LAPINSKI, Duke Career Center: I think that there are -- this generation of students are looking at a wider array of job opportunities. The students that are coming in now as first-year students are going to be doing things that aren't even invented yet.

You'll see students that are interested in more socially responsible, you know, positions. They're interested in jobs in the environment. They're interested -- you know, versus when I came out, you know, it was completely different. I wasn't aware of the diversity of career paths that were there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: While in the long term that freedom may be a benefit, in the short term, it's causing a great deal of angst for many in this generation who've been so tightly scheduled and programmed by their parents from birth.

EMMA RASIEL: I do find myself wondering, is it those kids whose parents have encouraged them all along to make their own choices, do their own research who are the ones who are now bringing those skills to bear in finding jobs off their own back versus the ones who have been very taken care of, who assume that their job hunt would be taken care of through the standard recruiting on campus, who are now deer in the headlights and unable to cope with the need to go and do it for themselves?

JUDY WOODRUFF: With graduation now behind them, many of those Gen-Nexters may soon be forced to go and do for themselves in a job market that forecasters say isn't likely to improve much for at least another year.