Peace Corps Applications Lowest in Decade? True?

[In March, Vocativ, a news website posted this item and it just came my way.]

posted by VOCATIV STAFF in SNEAK PEEK

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“Those who can’t find work, volunteer.” That was a popular idea during the height of the recession, but Vocativ has learned that the number of people applying to serve as volunteers in the Peace Corps is down 35 percent from 2009 and is now the lowest in a decade.

As the national unemployment rate hit a record high after the real estate market crash, so did the number of applications to the Peace Corps. 24 months in Tonga? No problem. Build a library in Burkina Faso? Why not. While college seniors scrambled to compete for few entry level jobs, the once for-hippies-only, life-postponing volunteer program offered an alternative stepping stone to adult life.

However, that is no longer the case, according to data on applicants and enrolled volunteers which Vocativ obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request to the federal government.

Since seeing a record number of applications in 2009, the number of applicants to the competitive federal volunteer program have declined steadily from a high of 15,384 in 2009 to 10,091 in 2012-which is about 20 percent shy of the number of applications received in 2007, before the recession.

“Young people are now less likely to look to the Peace Corps for an alternative employment opportunity than they were before the recession,” says Catherine Ruetschlin, a policy analyst at Demos, a public policy organization in New York.

The job market is either picking up for college grads or today’s generation of heavily indebted degree holders-80 percent of Corps volunteers are college grads- can’t afford to postpone earning a wage, according to Ruetschlin.

“Does the economy affect the number of applications? I think we see that it does,” says Elizabeth Chamberlain at the Peace Corps Northeast Regional Office.

“But it’s not as big a factor as you might think…[the Peace Corps] is not a quick-fix for someone who’s looking for a job,” says Chamberlain. The Peace Corps is a 27-month commitment and many people have to gain additional work or volunteer experience to even qualify for projects involving healthcare or agriculture, according to Chamberlain.

While the Peace Corps does not publish its application numbers or an acceptance rate, records obtained by Vocativ show that roughly one-third of applicants each year go on to serve and the number of people entering the corps has stayed relatively stable.

As the young presidential candidate John F. Kennedy said to a crowd of students at University of Michigan in October 1960: “How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers-how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?” The answer may be fewer.

[Here are some of the comments from their readers that the site received after this blog appeared]
  1. halMARCH 22,13Your headline suggests that getting a job means not doing good. There are other means and perhaps better means of “doing good” than joining the peace corps. My family is from a developing country, I question the value of sending over educated unskilled labor to developing countries. Who exactly is this program good for? If you’re trying to help the local population, why not hire local labor? Is it so far fetched to believe that there are locals who are educated and have skills to help their own communities? What skills to 22 year old political science majors bring to rural communities? Have they taught? Do they have backgrounds and training in education? Do they have prepared lessons plans? Do they know how to procure and install solar panels? Do they know how to start businesses and do accounting? If the program is trying to build good will towards America, send people with skills.Also, joining the peace corps may be a “sacrifice” for some but it’s a privilege for many and is simply not an option if people need to support families or pay non-deferrable loans/bills.Mara GrbenickMARCH 22, 2013
    • Thanks for your comment! Being able to sacrifice other work experience to volunteer for 27-months is a certain privilege, but the headline is not meant to imply that those who get a paying job can’t also being doing good with that work. In the piece we mention that possibly because of the burden of student debt, more young people can’t make the sacrifice of service in the Peace Corps and must work instead.
  2. KevinMARCH 22,13Actually, Peace Corps _can_ help with that student debt. You can get loan deferrals and cancellation on many types of loans. (http://www.peacecorps.gov/learn/whyvol/finben/) While cancellation may be best, deferral is still nice, since when you come back, with experience, you have a better chance at a higher paying job due to your two years of international experience than you did when you first graduated with no experience.As for what Volunteers do, they help communities identify their needs and how to address them. They aren’t just unskilled farm labor, and many “locals” who have managed to get an education actually have a harder time affording to work in poorer communities.
  3. AshleyMARCH 28,13I wonder if this dip in applicants might also reflect a change in attitude towards the Peace Corps. In 2011 there was a great deal of outrage around Peace Corps volunteers who had been raped while abroad. There has also been quite a bit of negative press around violence and robberies where Peace Corps volunteers are concerned.My final thought is that perhaps Peace Corps is no longer as powerful on a resume as it once was. While students try to gain applicable experience in a tough job market, a volunteering job as a community organizer is difficult to translate into anything except maybe graduate study. RPCV often struggle to find employment and many go directly back to school. I’d be interested to see the rate of employment for RPCV now as opposed to ten years ago.

8 Comments

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  • John, I hope this was shared with Carrie…important to follow thru with this info. The question that still finds me without an answer…why are fewer Males applying for Peace Corps? And if we look at the figures, fewer Hispanics and Native Americans are looking for Peace Corps service…we need to change that! Thanks for sharing this piece with us…let’s do something about it! Bob in Panamá

  • A discussion about why and how to change this would truly be welcomed. I would speculate, Bob, that Peace Corps’s current focus is on recruiting non-RPCVs for Peace Corps Response, and that there is a lack of interest on the part of recruiters in finding “young, inexperienced recent college graduates.” However, I am just speculating. You would be more knowledgeable about Peace Corps Response. I will say that the IG evaluation on the Peace Corps’s new ESL program in Colombia noted that some of the trainees/Volunteers were having difficulty with the language. I found that appalling. Colorado is a bi-lingual state. How could Peace Corps not find and recruit 20 bi-lingual Spanish/English speaking Volunteers for this very critically important program?

    What is not speculation is the failure of Peace Corps to fully implement the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011. I hold the Director responsible for that failure. I also don’t understand what the problem is.

    On September 1, Peace Corps posted a glowing self-congratulatory
    piece on how much had been done towards improving Volunteer safety. However, the article also noted that the law, the Kate Puzey
    Volunteer Protection Act of 2011 had not been fully implemented.
    The article was posted on the new Peace Corps official blog, I asked the question, “What provisions of the law, have not been implemented?” My question was “under moderation” and then not posted, let alone answered.

    ABC News highlighted in August of this year the report card issued by First Response Action, the brave RPCVs who mothered the law through Congress. The Report gave Peace Corps poor marks for compliance with the law. That law mandates that Peace Corps provide specific protection for American citizens who volunteer to serve. Peace Corps has refused to comply. One would have to be a fool to serve, now.

  • I would suggest that Peace Corps service is a better way to gain work experience than being an intern. As for the complaint about college educated but specific skills lacking Volunteers, I say there is still lots of room for energetic, educated, enterprising people to lend a useful hand to those on the lower rungs of the world’s economic ladder and I say that after having lived in 17 countries and seen most of the rest. Moreover, the main job of the Peace Corps is to increase cross cultural understanding, not build more latrines.

  • My youngest son has been wrestling with the new Peace Corps electronic application. It is unbelievably long and silly. As a favor to him, I met with a Peace Corps recruiter at a local “get together” with fourteen other former volunteers. Although the recruiter (a RPCV) was enthusiastic, she knew little or nothing about what the agency was actually recruiting and seemed unimpressed with the idea of an applicant who could speak more than English. A former recruiter was also present. While trying to sell us on the idea of creating a Facebook Page, they were vague on purpose- for RPCVs or applicants. It was depressing.

  • Applications are down..because globalization by Internet has eliminated the adventure of learning another language , culture and travel …you can purchase an app for all of that and never leave the couch!!

    The experience in 1961 is the same as 2013 ; however, the benefits are greater–college loan forgiveness, graduate programs for enhanced skill training , more international opportunities and jobs and you grow up…fast!!

    I am empathetic with the need to find employment after spending a mere $200,000 for a diploma , which may not be relevant but nothing can substitute from experiencing the third world and it’s aspirations. Remember PCV’s are not assigned to the G-8 countries.

    It’s a taxpayer paid adventure which serves the Volunteer, the host country and benefits America …3 for 1 no better deal unless you get elected to Congress.

  • Thanks to the play-it-safe crowd — and isn’t the current Director part of that same old mind-set of Don’t Upset anyone? So don’t expect anything to reverse the diminishment of the value of the Peace Corps.….We should have Lobbyists pounding on the doors of the military subcommittees in Congress who are tired of funding Peace Corps style work…

    We let the military co-opt us in the field and then when they begged to get out of our business, the last PC Director, whatever his name was, tippy-toed away from any discussion with the military…Saw no difference between RPCV recruiters and career military recruiters who frequently manage PC Regional Offices. Fucking Disgusting.

    Thanks again for pointing out facts that intuitively we knew had to be the case given the Farina-esque leadership of the PC and the RPCV organizations. No press at the 50th. None. How does non-participation help the Agency they’re charged with operating and, given the world’s deteriorating condition, growing all aspects of the U.S. Peace Corps?

    How about financing a PEW poll asking the public whether they would like to see America become the leading Peace-maker on Earth and which U.S. Agency should take the lead in such a peace-making effort? Should it be Cabinet Level?

    Thanks for all you do.

    WM Evensen
    A Sixties Volunteer

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