You could ask, so what if our talented young people all march off to become lawyers, doctors, bankers, and consultants? Isn’t that what smart people are supposed to do?
There are a few problems with this stance. First, the degree to which the recruitment infrastructure exists is a relatively recent phenomenon. Bain and Company, a premier management consulting firm, wasn’t founded until 1973—now it employs over 5,000 talented people and recruits hundreds per year. The financial services industry has mushroomed in size, with Wall Street firms employing 191,800 at their peak in 2008, up from only 65,300 in 1975. The growth in professional services has given rise to an accompanying set of recruitment pipelines only in the past several decades.
Yet the allocation of talent is a zero-sum game. If the academically gifted are funneled in higher numbers toward finance and consulting, then lesser numbers are going into other areas, such as the operation of companies, startups, and early-stage enterprises. In the United States, companies with fewer than 500 employees account for almost two-thirds of net new jobs and generate thirteen times more new patents per employee than do large firms. If the US economy had generated as many startups each year for 2009–12 as it had in 2007, the country would have produced almost 2.5 million new jobs by 2013. If we’re interested in spurring long-term job growth, we want as much talent as possible heading to new firms so that more of them can succeed, expand, and hire more people.
Further, the current talent flows have a pronounced regional bias. The hubs for financial services and consulting are New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, and these cities are magnets for the preponderance of top university graduates. Meanwhile, dozens of other US cities and communities are home to promising growth companies that don’t have the talent they need to develop and expand. Companies in Detroit, New Orleans, Las Vegas, Providence, Baltimore, Cleveland, and other cities are poised to hire and to provide new opportunities and products. Yet our national university graduates are being consistently channeled elsewhere.*
Professional services industries like finance, consulting, and legal services are, by definition, meta-industries. That is, they serve to help large companies raise money, buy and sell each other, reorganize, implement new systems, conduct complex transactions, and so forth. They are dependent on companies coming into being and becoming big enough to hire them. The economy needs more companies to start, grow, and thrive in order for the service organizations themselves to prosper. For example, if Mark Zuckerberg had become an investment banker or gone to work in a bank’s information technology department, then the bankers wouldn’t have had Facebook to take public. It’s actually far better for the investment banks (and everyone else) that instead of heading in their direction, he started his own company.
Another issue is that professional paths aren’t always the right fit. Everyone reading this knows a host of former lawyers, bankers, consultants, academics, or doctors for whom the work or environment was not right, many of whom eventually left the profession or stuck around halfheartedly. This represents a massive social cost. Instead of an army of bright college graduates, we are left with an array of often indebted former professionals who are only starting years later what should have been their first act. Some find roles that fit. But for most this transition is not seamless; there are often time-consuming stumbles and periods of exploration before a new path is forged or found—if one is found.
Last, and perhaps most important, professional services socialize individuals in ways that are not conducive to their ability to contribute in other ways. All of us, and particularly young people, have a tendency to view ourselves and our natures as static: you’ll choose to do something for a few years, and you’ll still be the same you. This isn’t the case. Spending your twenties traveling four days a week, interviewing employees, and writing detailed reports on how to cut costs will change you, as will spending years editing contracts and arguing about events that will never come to pass, or years producing Excel spreadsheets and moving deals along. After a while, regardless of your initial motivations, your lifestyle and personality will change to fit your role. You will become a better dispenser of well-presented recommendations, or editor of contracts, or generator of financial projections. And you will in all likelihood become less good at other things. You will not be the same person you were when you started.
It is no accident that many of those we regard as our most productive individuals—Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz, Jack Dorsey, Reid Hoffman, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and the like—were not products of our professional paths. Michael Dell actually entered the University of Texas intending to go to medical school. He probably would have made a fine doctor. But thanks to him over 100,000 people are now working at his namesake company, both in Texas and around the world.
* One could argue that our national university system has become a de facto talent drain for much of the country. Many states and communities send their top students away to great schools, never to hear from them again.