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By Phillip Messina

This past winter I was invited by the ICMA student chapter at Portland State University (PSU), Portland, Oregon, to answer two questions: How can we as students and graduates of an MPA program be better candidates for entry-level public sector jobs? How can we get qualified for mid-level jobs?

I suspect the reason they wanted my opinion had something to do with my 25 years of experience in Oregon and Washington as a city manager, a city administrator, and a brief stint as an executive recruiter. During my management career, I’ve hired police chiefs, fire chiefs, public works directors, and finance directors. While a recruiter, I worked with elected officials to hire local government managers.

But hiring entry-level or mid-level positions? I probably did that long ago, before social media and well before most of the bright young emerging leaders who invited me to Portland were born.

No Magic Wand

I was certain they were expecting a magic formula to getting a job in the public sector; however, I can’t pull out a wand like Harry Potter would and say “jobbus gettum” and instantly transform them into managers, administrators, and department directors.

Unsure of what useful information I could share, I did what any self-respecting manager might do. I asked for help from my friends and colleagues.

I posted the two questions on the Oregon City/County Managers Association online discussion list. Several of the newer—and perhaps younger—managers responded with some excellent observations and advice. I repurposed as much information from these managers as possible—after all, youth and intelligence can be overcome by old age and treachery—and began organizing my thoughts for the discussion.

On an overcast day in January, I drove from Seattle, Washington, to Portland, Oregon, found room 611 at the PSU Hatfield School, and fumbled my way into the meeting of the MPA students.

My first question to the group was: What area of public service are you aiming to work for? I was surprised when only three of them said “city management.” (After all, in my opinion, it’s the best profession by far.) Other students were interested in transportation planning, public program management, economic development, and community development.

I told them that once they could answer that question and make a decision, then each student should focus his or her research on organizations in those areas. I also asked them: Where do you want to work? Chances are good that job seekers won’t get their first job within walking distance of home.

They will need to be open to moving, whether that is across town, across the state, or across the country. Though I am describing how to go after a manager or administrator position in this article, the advice should be generic enough that it can work with almost any job search.

The Need to Know

Long-time public-sector recruiter Greg Prothman suggests that job seekers put together a type of “three-ring binder” either in writing or electronically with all the research that an individual does on an organization, including website pages, newspaper articles, budgets, goals, vision, and mission statements. Candidates should bring this information to job interviews and refer to it as needed during the interview.

If it’s possible, candidates should attend a council, department, or agency meeting, and watch the interaction between elected officials and staff. Is the tone professional, or does there seem to be an underlying or blatant degree of disrespect? Candidates should ask themselves if they want to work in this type of organization?

It is important to get a sense of the community (or agency) where a person wants to work. My advice is to walk around, go into businesses, talk with the chamber of commerce director, and chat with anyone else who has a relationship with the local government.

For management positions, permission should be requested from the current manager or interim manager to talk with the department directors to get their sense of the issues, the organization, and the community.

Once that permission is given, an e-mail should be sent to each department director asking if they can schedule a time to talk. When discussions have been set up, be prepared with insightful questions relating to the community, organization, and job. Discussions should be direct, concise, polite, and brief.

Parts of the Conversation

During the interview for a position, these points should be considered:

Technical skills and experience. What particular skill or skill set can help your new employer? You’re trying hard to land a job, so what’s your expertise? Are you interested in budgeting? A project manager? A grant writer?

Do you have accounting and financial expertise? Management and supervision skills? What specific experience, knowledge, skills, and abilities do you bring to the job?

Communication. As long as there are dinosaurs like me hiring and managing organizations, we will insist that you be able to read, write, and communicate clearly, concisely, and correctly. At some point, you might be writing a grant application that requests a person or a resource to give your organization large sums of money.

Or you might be tasked to write a comprehensive staff report that will be read by elected officials who could use the information to make such a monumental decision as banning exotic pets. With this task, you will need to put your thoughts and ideas into clear, correct language. Save the computer shorthand and emoticons for after work.

Key Responsibility Areas

In order to be a local government manager, experience will be needed in these areas:

Budget. Review the budget document. How is the local government funded? Where does the revenue come from? What is it spent on?

Human resources. Knowledge on hiring, training, disciplining, and firing employees is helpful.

Union contracts, labor law, and collective bargaining. These can be tricky as union negotiations are held behind closed doors, and the details are confidential. To someday sit in the manager’s chair, however, some experience in negotiating labor contracts probably will be needed.

Land-use law, zoning, planning, and development regulations. To work for a local government, knowledge about comprehensive plans, zoning codes, and development processes also will be needed.

Applying for Jobs

As for a resume, two to three pages should be sufficient, and web links included if applicable. Candidates only have a few minutes to get the reviewer’s attention with the cover letter and resume, so make them stand out. And definitely no typos in the resume copy.

When reviewing resumes, I’m interested in what previous jobs candidates have had, even if they aren’t directly focused on the public sector. When references are checked, the interviewer can ask if candidates are reliable. Did they get along with coworkers? Did they get the work done? Did they solve more problems than they caused?

Research. Before an interview, homework can be completed on the community. My assumption is today’s students are well-versed in Internet research and can find out everything they want to know about the community where they want to work. Also check the local newspaper, the organization’s website, and the appropriate resources on ICMA’s website.

Interviewing: Be prepared for stock questions. When asked to give personal background information to an interviewer, keep it brief. Have a good answer for this question: Why are you the best person for this job?

Ask intelligent questions about the organization or community. Answer questions honestly and most importantly, be yourself.

Landing a Job

No one does public sector work alone. When a person is hired for a local government position, he or she will be part of a team, accountable for assigned work, respecting of deadlines, and accountable for mistakes as well as to learn from them.

Once hired, a person doesn’t want to blow it by underperforming. When things are slow, ask for more work. Find tasks that need to get done and volunteer to do them.

Whatever an assignment is, the important part is to get it done, on time, professionally, and completely. If not sure about something, ask questions. Be ready to work hard, but don’t neglect family nor forget to have a life.

Again, my advice to new hires is to always be honest. If unsure how to proceed in a sticky situation, check the ICMA Code of Ethics.

Looking Back on a Legacy

Local government management can be a frustrating, difficult profession at times, but it can also be the most rewarding work a person will ever do. The final questions here are those that students will have to answer for themselves: Why do you want to work in the public sector? Twenty or 30 years from now, what do you want to look back on and be proud of? What will your public service legacy be?

I urge students to do this one thing in their careers: make a positive difference—to the people they work with, to the managers who hired them, and especially to the communities they will serve.

Phillip Messina, Duval, Washington (, has served as a manager in Oregon and Washington.