By Jim Miller
Former State Demographer Tom Gillaspy has often heard this question: “When should we have seen the impact on the workforce now being felt by the retirement of the baby boomers?” His answer: “Sixty-five years ago, when they were born.”
Of course, we knew that, but we nevertheless haven’t prepared especially well for how we will transition to a workforce that now has over 10,000 people retiring daily.
For government, it’s about more than numbers. Government, especially good government, requires competency, but also commitment to our democratic principles and belief in government as being fundamentally important to the quality of life we all seek. Will we be able to find adequate numbers of talented replacements who share a passion for making a difference through government service?
Minnesota is also becoming, and will continue to become, more ethnically diverse. Many of these new citizens, along with the youth who were born here, will be needed to fill vacant elected and appointed positions in our communities. But will they even know about, much less consider, such choices? Will they have role models to inspire them to public service?
I recall how I accidentally came to work in the public sector through an interview with the city manager in my hometown when I was a senior in high school. I did this to fulfill a civics class assignment, but not because of any interest in or curiosity about local government. Regardless, that interview changed my life.
I still remember how seriously he took that interview. I could tell local government was important to him and I quickly saw the passion he felt for his career. He believed in what he was doing, and that he was making a difference. It was also apparent that he could have made other, more lucrative, career choices, but he was obviously committed to public service. At the end of the interview, he offered me an internship, which I accepted. I was hooked—I knew then what career to pursue.
I am quite sure this is neither a unique nor remarkable story. Many people have undoubtedly had their careers similarly shaped. I also suspect that many of these encounters occur by accident. I happened to interview this city manager. To my knowledge, no one else did the same before or after me. What similar impact might he have had on others provided with that same opportunity?
A few years ago, the Council for Excellence in Government surveyed 455 young people about their interest in public service and their views on role models. On the positive side, the primary reason young people cited for considering a public service career was to help people. However, the survey also found that only one-third saw government as an appealing career choice.
Respondents distinguished between “public” and “government” service, expressing interest in helping people, but not necessarily through working for government institutions. More disconcerting was that they were least drawn to elected office; only one in 10 saw that aspect of public service as attractive. It is unlikely that a survey conducted today would produce better results.
There may be many explanations for such a lack of interest in public service, but one of the primary considerations appears to be lack of role models. In this survey, only 5 percent listed mayors or other local officials as role models. In part, this finding was no doubt influenced by another survey finding—that only about one-fourth had ever been asked to consider a career in local government, down from 35 percent when the survey was conducted only two years prior.
Clearly, there are many important issues commanding the daily attention of those in public service, and the job is not getting easier. One of our most important challenges, however, must be cultivating the next generation of city officials. Some, like me, may stumble into public service, but that is not an adequate answer.
The legacy of those of us in public service today won’t only be the budgets we managed or the projects we completed, but also how well we have nurtured the next generation of competent, passionate, public servants. Are you doing your part?
Jim Miller is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 281-1205.
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