Do you like to make things work more efficiently and cost effectively? Do you enjoy bringing out the best in the people you work with? Do you want to make a real difference in the city, town, or county where you live and work? If you answered yes to these questions, consider a career as a professional local government manager! Known by various titles—city manager, county administrator, town manager, chief administrative officer (CAO)—these dedicated leaders are at the core of better cities, towns, boroughs, villages, and counties everywhere.
What makes a career as a local government manager so hot? According to ICMA, the International City/County Management Association, in 1971, 71 percent of professional city, town, and county managers were age 40 or younger; 26 percent were under age 30. In 2006, only about 13 percent of local government CAOs were under age 40, and only one percent were age 30 or younger!
The 78-million-strong baby boom generation, which helped grow the local government management profession in the expanding U.S. suburbs during the 1960s and 1970s, will be retiring at an alarming rate, and not a lot of people are queued up to fill the void. Future generations of prospective managers are much smaller in number, and for many people under age 30, “public service” means working for a nonprofit or the state or federal government and not for the cities, towns, and counties where they live. In short, this relatively unknown field is wide open to talented young professionals or career changers who want to make a difference and contribute to the future success of their communities.
What does a local government manager do?
What exactly does a professional manager do? A typical day in the life of a local government manager can involve everything from overseeing a community’s law enforcement, fire, and emergency response operations to implementing a new recycling program to ensuring that the tap water you drink and shower with when you wake up every morning is safe and plentiful.
City and county managers are responsible for making sure that basic services such as utilities, sanitation, and road maintenance are provided efficiently to citizens in their community. These highly trained, experienced women and men are committed to meeting these challenges each and every day, 24 hours a day. The job involves working with a range of individuals involved in public safety, public works, economic development, and dozens of other service areas to move their community toward a common goal and respond to problems efficiently and effectively.
Until now, you may have thought that most of these basic functions were overseen directly by an elected mayor. Perhaps you personally know the person who serves as mayor, board chairman, or chief elected official in the city, town, or county where you live.
In nearly 85 percent of U.S. cities with populations greater than 2,500, however, and in an additional 372 counties, there is also a professional manager in place who’s responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of the community. Professional managers add considerable value to their communities, including:
- Freeing up members of the governing body to develop a community vision and related policies;
- Providing the expertise of a highly trained, nonpolitical, experienced professional who has the experience, administrative qualifications, and education to produce results;
- Providing accountability to citizens through the elected governing body, the people who hire the manager as an “at-will” employee and who can fire that person at any time through a majority vote.
Professional managers who are members of ICMA also subscribe to a stringently enforced Code of Ethics that governs not only their professional but their personal actions as well.
I want in! What do I do next?
So what does it take to get started in this dynamic career? In 2006, nearly two-thirds of city, town, and county managers surveyed possessed a master’s degree in public administration (MPA), public policy, business administration, or some other type of advanced degree. A good first step after graduate school is to complete an internship or fellowship with a city, town, or county government. These types of experiences can give a candidate the advantage of a “boots-on-the-ground” understanding of the field prior to applying for a specific management position.
In addition to an advanced educational degree, other knowledge, skills, and abilities are also critical to individuals considering a career as a professional local government manager. These include: human resource management, communication, financial analysis, staff facilitation, and strategic planning. Technology literacy is also an important skill set. Just imagine being the person overseeing the upgrade of an IT system for an entire community!
Many city, town, and county managers begin their careers in local government as a management or budget analyst. This experience allows them to become familiar with the inner workings of local government and prepares them for a smooth transition into a top-level management position.
So, what's the catch?
No catch. On average, city, town, and county managers can earn between $90,000 and $110,000. Managers also enjoy excellent benefits, including deferred compensation, and employment contract, and sometimes even a car or automobile expenses. Combine all this with the ability to make a difference and the dynamic, ever-changing nature of the work, and you’ve got a job that lets you make a difference without making a financial sacrifice.
Now that you know what a professional manager does and what it takes to become one, is it the career for you? Young people entering the workforce and career changers interested in improving their communities should be attracted to this career, as it offers a practically unlimited opportunity to make a real difference. Ex-military personnel may also be attracted to the leadership and public service aspects of the job, and they are likely to be very well suited for it! Hard working, driven, and results oriented individuals will also enjoy a career as a professional local government manager.
Don’t miss out on what one of the hottest careers you’ve probably never heard of. If, after reading this article, a career as a professional city, town, or county manager sounds exciting to you, and you think you have what it takes to succeed in this field, visit icma.org/careers and explore additional resources, discussion groups, and job opportunities. For more information about MPA/MPP programs throughout the U.S., visit naspaa.org.