This was going to be a comment, but it got way too long ... so a response post it is.
First, a little clarification, since there seems to be some confusion here. I'm not a consultant. I did actually go straight from college into the stereotype of genteel penury, which is to say graduate school in the humanities. I make $18,000 a year, share a one-bedroom apartment in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States, and have a health insurance plan with a prescription-benefit cap that only covers me for about half the year. Most of the people in my program are married and live primarily on their spouses' income; those who aren't, generally receive supplemental money from their families. I'm lucky in that I'll start receiving domestic partner benefits next year ... from a consulting company.
So, yes, despite the fact that I had the luxury of choosing grad school over immediate cash - or rather because of that fact - I'm pretty darn familiar with what actually goes into consulting, and the decision to become a consultant. So I wanted to take this time to dispel a few persistent myths.
Myth #1: People who go into consulting do so mindlessly/by default/because they lack the ambition or imagination to do anything else/because it's what everyone expects of them.
Reality: First of all, consulting companies don't hire people who lack ambition or imagination. It's actually a rather intellectually challenging and creative job, and the people who tend to get hired (out of all those who get interviewed) are precisely those bright, motivated, ambitious people who are likely to leave the company in a few years in order to use the skills they've acquired to do something else (like, um, run a non-profit).
In fact, let me introduce you to the four people from my current university who are joining the major consulting firms next year. "Shane" has coached an inner-city debate team since arriving at college - in her free time, which is to say, when not coordinating efforts to distribute anti-retroviral drugs, clean needles, and condoms, both in our city and in the sub-Saharan African country where the university sent her to study for a semester. "Max" has been volunteering for (and later working for) queer organizations since puberty, organizing more conferences and successful awareness campaigns than can be counted, and (at age 18) producing original legal research that has since been cited by, among other folks, Dean Spade. "Charlotte" spent her summers in a war-torn Eastern European country helping draft their new constitution. And "Stanford" (whom, admittedly, I don't know as well as the others) has been an active member of the ACLU practically since birth.
Let me tell you - none of these people were expected to become consultants. In fact, most if not all of them agonized over the decision and received precisely the same kind of shit from their peers as people are now dishing out here. And at least two of them do intend to make their careers in the non-profit sector; one, I believe, plans to serve the public by working in the government; one, again, I don't know well enough to predict. Each of them chose consulting for different reasons (though there was some overlap), and each of them weighed their options carefully, including the potential they would ultimately have to do good if they accepted one job or another (or if they went straight to school).
It's also not easy to become a consultant. Sure, perhaps it's easy to post your resume on the recruiting website; but by the time you're even halfway through the interview process, anyone who thinks consulting is the easy way out has had to put some serious thought into why they're still hanging in there. And anyone who gets a job offer has been chosen out of a pool of thousands of graduating seniors from the nation's top colleges - for less than 100 jobs a year. Seriously - it's harder to get a consulting job than to get into Harvard.
Myth #2: Consulting drops you straight into the lap of luxury.
Reference Kaya's comment that "the issue we're discussing is ... extreme wealth vs moderation."
Reality: I would love to live in a world where a mid-five-figure salary (for a job where you're working up to 80 hours a week and must live in some of the most expensive neighborhoods/cities in the world*) is "extreme wealth." Now, obviously, it's nothing to sniff at ... but streets paved with gold, it is not.
*hint: if you're working that late and need to commute to cheaper lodgings, you quickly discover that most cities' public transit systems - especially the lines that run to poorer neighborhoods - often stop running before you'll be ready to leave. options? get a car - and spend in gas and workday parking approximately what you're saving on rent - or live close to work, which is to say in the financial district. this is one reason you're getting more money.
Myth #3: The "non-profit world" and the "corporate world" are actually two different worlds.
Reality, point 1: most non-profits are, in fact, corporations. Learning how corporations work is thus actually a useful skill for someone who wants to work for a corporation for the rest of their life, whether it be of the for-profit or non-profit variety. Knowing how to skillfully and efficiently manage an organization with limited resources is not a sin; it's an asset.
Reality, point 2: non-profit money is corporate money. If you take a $22,000 administrative-assistant job at the Task Force, your salary is probably coming out of Wells Fargo's pocket. If you want to work for Planned Parenthood, get used to taking money from the dirty capitalist swine at Bank of America, Prudential, Wachovia, and Disney. If the ACLU can afford to give you a paycheck, it has less to do with the revenue from Anthony Romero's book sales and more to do with Ford, Hewlett-Packard, Merck, Verizon, and Progressive Insurance. (And, um, RJ Reynolds and Playboy. Just sayin'.)
Ah, but what about individual donors? Well, there are folks like me who give small amounts regularly to a few non-profits which are important to us; but honestly, we barely cover the cost of the mailings we get asking for our next donation. The rest of the donors are the big-ticket donors, the folks who simultaneously make enough money to give very large sums of it away and care enough about progressive causes to give it away to us. In other words, if you have a non-profit job, you can thank someone who doesn't. Your money isn't any purer or nobler or more infused with the perfume of justice than theirs; it's the same money.
A corollary - if you're benefitting from a loan forgiveness or loan repayment assistance program (other than those administered by the federal government), your ability to go into a non-profit job without worrying about student debt is directly funded by major corporate donors and wealthy alumni (who are by and large employed by major corporations). Fabulous for you - but don't pretend you're morally superior to the people who are giving you that opportunity.
Reality, point 3: many non-profits want things from corporations. Take, for example, all the people who want SRS to be covered by health insurance. Awesome. Now how, exactly, do you propose to convince a health-insurance company to fund SRS without an intimate knowledge of how the insurance industry works? Working in a consulting company for a few years gives you - dare I say it - real-world experience in the critical area of "talking to corporations and getting them to do things." You can only go so far on the strength of your convictions and the knowledge that your proposal comes from the moral high ground; sooner or later you have to give up on the idea that willful ignorance of corporate structures is a virtue, or give up on the hope of ever changing those structures.
Myth #4: Things that cost money are frivolous; or, anyone can live on a non-profit wage if they live "moderately."
Ok. Let's break this down. Here is a listing of 127 typical jobs within non-profit organizations, complete with their average salaries. Let's assume for the sake of argument that you enter as an "Outreach Worker" - certainly not the lowest-paid entry-level job, but you don't even want to try this exercise with the office-assistant or direct-service-provider salaries, trust me. So you're making $29,752 a year, or about $2,479 a month. (Not bad. More than I make.)
Let's also say your living situation is that of a friend of mine, who's starting work at a Manhattan non-profit in September. She's sharing a sublet apartment in Brooklyn for about $800 a month. (By "sharing," by the way, I mean "more people than rooms.") This leaves you with $1679 a month. You will also need a Metrocard to get to work; at $81 a month, you are left with $1598.
According to the State of New York, you should be able to feed yourself on $200 a month (more or less the maximum amount of food stamps they'll give to a single person). The idea that food stamps realistically cover food expenses is bullshit, but ok. You're spending $200 a month on food. Maybe you're small. Now you have $1398.
You also have student loans. Financial experts estimate that a minimum of 10% of gross monthly income should be spent paying off student loans (if you have an average amount of loans and decent enough credit to get an average amount of interest). They recommend that you pay 15% if you can, to prevent the interest from accruing too fast. But let's not even go there. Your gross monthly income is $2479; 10% of that is $248. You now have $1150 a month.
We forgot your taxes, though! Approximately 28% of your gross pay will never even make it to your bank account; 28% of $2479 is $694. $1150-694=456, which is how many dollars you now have a month.
Let's also say you have my insurance and take one of my prescription medications (the less expensive one). When your insurance covers the prescription, it costs $25 a month; when the benefits run out, it costs $120. This month, I don't have benefits any more - so neither do you. You have $336 after paying for your meds (and trust me, Bad Things Happen when you don't take them). But you also have a $10 co-pay for the doctor who prescribes your meds. So make that $326.
At this point, your apartment is still empty. By combing Craig's List, you find a futon for $60, a small table for $20, a microwave for $40, silverware and dishes for two for $20, and basic pots and pans for $20. You don't know anyone with a car, so add on a $15 cab ride each for the futon and table. Total damage: $190. In the real world, you have to pay for these when you buy them. For now, let's spread out the cost over three months, for approx. $63 a month. This means you have $263 for the next few months. You still haven't bought clothes, but we'll assume your college clothes are all workplace-appropriate and still fit you. Also, you're a monk/nun and never indulge in any form of entertainment that costs money. So you should be in the clear - $263 a month straight to savings!
Except, oh shit. You trip on a broken piece of sidewalk and break your wrist. You can't type, so you lose a couple of sick days. And when the hospital bill arrives, it's over $700 - after your insurance. If you're less than three months into your "save $263 a month" plan, you're in debt or default. If you had three months of savings, they're gone.
You want to have kids someday? Sorry, that might not be in the cards. If you're fertile (and in a relationship that will lead to childbearing without additional medical intervention), expect to pay around $30,000 to deliver your baby in a hospital, with no complications, and stay there for three days. If, like most of the people reading this, your child is going to be born via some or all of artificial insemination, surrogacy, or fertility treatments, triple that. If you want to adopt, you should know that the average cost to adopt domestically is $15,000; from Russia, $25,000-$35,000; from China, $22,000.
You want to transition medically? Hormones and surgery cost money, too. Which category are you planning on cutting back on in order to save up the tens of thousands of dollars some transwomen find their transitions costing?
Oh, and by the way? If you were paying for both my prescriptions, it would cost you an extra $350 a month. If you were a type-I diabetic trying a treatment your endocrinologist recommended but your insurance company didn't yet cover (i.e. tons of treatments), it could cost you - to take the example of the continuous glucose sensor - $1000 at the outset, and about $350 a month thereafter. If you've got a mystery condition that's looking more and more like MS, and your doctor recommends interferon, one month's prescription will cost more than my entire prescription-benefit cap (a month at standard dosage is about $1800).
These aren't random examples, by the way; these are consultants I know who took the job, among other reasons, because they are chronically ill and can't afford not to make more than $30,000 a year.
So, tell me ... where was the frivolous spending, here? What little luxuries should our hypothetical person be eliminating? Why is it so hard to believe that an entry-level wage at a non-profit is not actually sufficient for everyone's legitimate needs?
Myth #5: I want you - yes, you - to be a consultant
Reality: I don't give a flying rat's left testicle what job you take or what schooling you pursue out of college. I would, however, love it if you stopped acting as if making money was beneath your level of enlightenment; and I'd be thrilled if you didn't act as though people who choose consulting were selling out not only their own souls but the Entire Progressive Movement as well.
June 26, 2008
Myths about consulting; or, why consultants aren't automatically greedy mindless soulless corporate minions
This was going to be a comment, but it got way too long ... so a response post it is.