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The musings of the great resignation coupled with the large numbers of boomers retiring has created an environment where we often see professionals announce on social media that they are starting a new position. This may cause great worry to some, or it may motivate others to seek out better opportunities. You may wonder how you could break into local government and get your dream job working in city hall and giving back to the community, but it’s not always easy—some entry-level positions ask for a minimum of three years of experience. Here is my advice.

During my second year of the master’s in public administration program at the University of Central Florida, I began to apply for local government jobs with the titles of “analyst,” “assistant to the,” and “neighborhood services coordinator.” After submitting dozens of applications with no job in sight, I applied for administrative assistant jobs, but I still did not receive an opportunity. So I embarked upon one of the most significant decisions in my life: applying to the ICMA Local Government Management Fellowship (LGMF).

The LGMF provides recent graduates of MPA/MPP programs with little to no experience in local government the opportunity to have a full-time position in a municipality, dedicated mentorship, and paid registration to both the ICMA annual and regional conferences. The premise of the program is to recruit talented individuals to fill the void of job loss in local government and to launch passionate professionals into local government management positions.

During my fellowship at the city of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I learned how to manage programs and I used that experience to secure a permanent position in local government as the assistant to the city manager for the city of Mary Esther, Florida.

I realize that there are a lot of public service professionals or recent graduates looking to get into local government and wanting to find their first job in local government management. Some may already have a job but are seeking the next rung on the ladder toward becoming a city manager. Remember, public service careers are like a jungle gym and not a ladder. However, it has been noted in an earlier article that the typical hierarchy in the manager’s office is as follows:

  • City/county manager (CAO).
  • Assistant/deputy CAO.
  • Assistant to the CAO.
  • Management analyst.
  • Management intern or management fellow.

This year, l had the pleasure to serve on the Task Force to Update the ICMA Job Hunting Handbook. This committee is comprised of local government professionals in various stages of their career. I am honored to give my feedback as an entry-level local government professional. I am also a former public-school teacher and I learned after meeting multiple former teachers who now work in local government that we make excellent local government employees. Professionals who are trying to break into the field often are seeking positions as a management analyst or an assistant to the city manager.

Highly Sought-After Entry-Level Positions

Management Analyst

The management analyst position is thought of as entry level, but most municipalities require some experience in local government. Often the minimum education and experience that is required is three years at the bachelor’s degree level or one year of experience and a master’s degree. Also, the management analyst duties vary throughout the country. In many states like Florida, the management analyst is synonymous with budget analyst. Still, in other places, management analysts manage programs, perform complicated research and data analysis, and complete special projects for different departments like the city manager’s office, human resources department, and parks and recreation department to name a few. Many management analysts work closely with their city manager.

Assistant to the City Manager/CAO

The assistant to the city manager is often a mid-level manager position where the professional reports directly to the city manager. This position works on special projects and may oversee a department, especially in smaller organizations. There are assistant to the city manager professionals who also serve as the economic development manager, human resources manager, real estate administrator, and more. The position is versatile and may be required to help with the municipality’s budget, communications, or recruitment. The person in the “assistant to the” position will have a lot of responsibility and the position is distinguished from the executive assistant role because it requires the individual to work on high-level projects that require complex analysis and decision-making skills.

Stay Visible

If you want the next job opportunity, you must remain visible in the local government community. This may mean having memberships in professional associations/organizations, which often give students and early career professionals a discounted rate. I left feeling revitalized after attending last year’s ICMA Annual Conference and an NFBPA South Florida Chapter social. Events like these give local government professionals an opportunity to connect with other people who are passionate about public service.

I recently attended the 2022 Florida City and County Management Association (FCCMA) conference, and the experience was life changing. I was inspired to continue my pursuit of becoming a city manager after attending a pre-conference session titled, “So You’re Going to Be a City/County Manager.” I made so many connections with people in every level of the field, including city managers and early career professionals like myself.

Professional Associations

International City/County Management Association (ICMA)

Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL)

National Forum for Black Public Administrators (NFBPA)

Local Government Hispanic Network (LGHN)

The League of Women in Government

International Network of Asian Public Administrators (I-NAPA)

Ways to Stay Visible

  • Create a LinkedIn profile and post regularly.
  • Attend professional conferences and networking mixers.
  • Join a committee within ICMA.
  • Write an article and submit it for publication consideration by a professional organization like ICMA or ELGL.
  • Participate in webinars with ICMA or your state organization, such as FCCMA.

Joining committees and participating in webinars are professional development experiences that can be used on a resume when applying for entry-level positions. Holding professional memberships will give you an opportunity to connect with other people who are passionate about public service.

Resume

I had the privilege of helping my organization interview candidates, and I can certainly say that a bad resume can ruin your chance of getting hired. Many recruiters understand that recent graduates do not have a significant amount of experience, but they still expect for you to have at least one internship that has lasted for a minimum of four months or a full semester.

  • Resumes should be organized in chronological order and your work experience should be easy to find.
  • Leave out the fluff. Do not include information that is not relevant to the job you are applying for.
  • Resumes should show that you are dependable and trustworthy.
  • Be clear on when you received or are expecting to earn a degree.

Cover Letter

The cover letter can be just as important as the resume. This will give you the opportunity to explain why you want the job and why you are the perfect pick for the position. Some recruiters were not interested in my background as an educator, but those that found my past career as a teacher as worthy were the ones that offered me the job.

  • Use meaningful, thoughtful, and expressive language in your cover letter.
  • Relay a time that you helped someone.
  • Discuss why you are choosing a career in public service or local government and why you want to work for that municipality.
  • Remember to discuss what you bring to table and all relevant career information.

Job Search

I had experience in neighborhood relations and community engagement, so I sought positions such as neighborhood relations coordinator and management analyst. I knew I did not want to work entirely in budget, but management analyst positions that were not primarily focused on budget were hard to come by. I discussed this with my coach through ICMA Coach Connect and she mentioned that city managers are generalists who are versatile and experts in multiple areas of local government. I realized in that moment that I wanted to work as an assistant to the city manager and I wanted to learn as much as I could about local government while working under the direct leadership of a city manager.

After this epiphany, I narrowed my job search to assistant to the city manager roles and used sites such as governmentjobs.com, ICMA Job Center, fccma.org/jobs, and Google searches. I applied for about six assistant to the city manager positions, interviewed for three of those positions, and accepted the position with the city of Mary Esther. The process of applying, interviewing, and being placed in a position took five months, so I recommend applying to jobs at the start of your second year in the MPA program. People who have already began a career in local government as an intern, fellow, or administrative assistant should start applying when they gain at least six months of continuous work experience.

Resilience

Searching, crafting resumes and cover letters for each position you apply to, interviewing, and waiting require you to be resilient. You will receive more no’s than yeses, but you must bounce back each time and continue your mission of public service. Allow your passion for helping others drive your pursuit of finding a job opportunity. Even if you have a bad interview, let it be a learning lesson for the next interview. While interviewing, remember that you are also interviewing the community, so ask questions about the job. Go to the job and meet the people to get a good sense of a positive work environment or a toxic work environment. We are living in an era scarred by COVID-19 and the world around us has changed. We must be adaptable and willing to take on new challenges. The road ahead may seem tough, but it will get better. You will get your foot in the door and even if it is not your dream job, it will be the start of something great.

JEANNETTA MAXENA, MPA, is the assistant to the city manager for Mary Esther, Florida (jmaxena@cityofmaryesther.com). She was a recipient of the 2022 ICMA Judy L Kelsey Scholarship Award.
Headshot of Jeannetta Maxena

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