Is it Time to Mandate Community Service?
7:00 AM Friday February 27, 2009
by Bronwyn Fryer
"Hey, Comcast Team!" yells my 19-year old stepson, Kip, pointing to a billboard in downtown Boston. His red City-Year sweatshirt sports a Comcast logo. As he passes the billboard, he grins from ear to ear. Way to go, Comcast. (Other City-Year sponsor firms include Microsoft, KPMG, Deloitte and Touche, T-Mobile and Timberland.)
Support for youth volunteer programs like City-Year isn't just about good branding, or Corporate Responsibity 101. Speaking of education in his address to the nation, Barack Obama stumped for the Serve America Act, a bill that would make participants eligible for educational awards. "I know that the price of tuition is higher than ever," the President said, "which is why, if you are willing to volunteer in your neighborhood or give back to your community or serve your country, we will make sure that you can afford a higher education."
Frankly, I think Obama isn't demanding nearly enough. If I were in his shoes, I'd require community service of every U.S. citizen, like a military draft. Short of that, I'd make sure that businesses that support community service organizations and hire their graduates get a gigantic tax break. In one fell swoop, we could address all kinds of problems (providing critical services for veterans, the disabled, the homeless, inner-city school kids, you name it) and teach future leaders who, like my stepson, would otherwise be spending their days updating their Facebook pages.
Folks, this isn't about sending kids to college to learn the finer points of Proust. This is about your future workforce. Companies--and everyone you know--should be stumping for the Serve America Act. If for no other reason, they should support it because service programs teach young volunteers many skills that colleges currently can't and don't. Here's a short list:
1) A Work Ethic. My stepson, who could easily have earned a double Ph.D in Sleep and Responsibility Avoidance, now wakes up at 6:30 to face the music, puts on a uniform and works hard 50 or more hours per week.
2) Fundamental Skills. Today, too many kids are tracked to college programs to which they are not well suited; community services programs act as de facto apprenticeship and internship training programs.
3) Respect for Diversity. Companies cry a lot about the lack of diversity in their management pipelines, because they stay inside the same predictive box. By supporting community service programs that encourage young people from a variety of backgrounds, they can help to educate a new, multifaceted generation of leaders.
4) Empathy. Emotional intelligence is in huge demand these days. Companies need managers that can engage and motivate workers. I will wager that someone who has learned to work with the less fortunate knows more about right-brained, empathic leadership than anyone coming from the average MBA program.
5) Democracy 101. Finally, companies that support community service programs teach kids a lesson in real de Tocqueville-style democracy. As the great philosopher noted, democracy requires its citizens to be fully (mentally and physically) engaged. (For an impassioned "Amen," read former Senator Gary Hart's essay, "Restore the Republic").
Right now, beyond the ballot box, the only mechanism for engagement is the military. Volunteerism engages body and mind.
Should community service be an educational or hiring requirement?