By Claudia Hoffacker
When White Bear Lake Mayor Jo Emerson spoke at Minnesota’s annual Girls State event this year, she had a surprising realization.
“I told them that if you’re thinking about careers, cities need finance directors and city managers and city engineers and public works, and I just went down the list of different city jobs,” Emerson says. “And I could see the lightbulb going on in their heads. A career in city government had never occurred to many of them before.”
Now, as president of the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC), one of Emerson’s goals is to make sure that young people do think of city government when they think about their future.
“Girls State was perfect because you’ve got 400 young women who are juniors in high school, looking at college and starting to think about careers. It’s a great place to plant some seeds,” she says.
Emerson wants to explore how cities can continue planting those seeds throughout the year in more concrete ways—and not just for young people, but for anyone who may be on the hunt for a new job.
Aging city workforce
Getting young people—and others—to consider city careers is not just a nice thing to do. It’s essential because the city workforce is aging, and cities need to attract the next generation of employees. And they need people at all levels—from entry- to director-level positions. Emerson says White Bear Lake is living proof that this is true.
“Our city manager retired a year-and-a- half ago, and our city attorney just retired. We have a few other key employees who will be retiring over the next few years,” Emerson says. “So, I’m really feeling it in my city, and I want to see the next generation step up.”
In support of Emerson’s goal, the League focused on city careers this year in its booth at the Minnesota State Fair. The booth had a superhero theme, and fairgoers had the chance to take an interactive quiz to discover their “superpower” and find out the city careers most likely to be a good match for them. They also had the opportunity to learn more about city careers and how they make a difference in the community.
About 5,000 people took the quiz— some were intrigued by the results and by the prospect of working for a city. Many people made comments about how they’d never thought about applying for city jobs, but they could see now that their skills might be a good fit for a city.
“I was very excited that we focused on city jobs at the State Fair this year,” says LMC Human Resources Director Laura Kushner. “The quiz opened up the possibility of working at a city for people who may have never considered it. I hope after visiting our booth that people will see that city jobs are interesting, important, and potentially fun work. These are jobs that impact people’s lives.”
Kushner advises cities that they may need to change their approach to attract younger employees. “Be bold, take chances, consider innovative work programs that emphasize work-life balance,” she says. “It’s not always about wages. Today’s workers understand the value of flexibility and freedom to make their own decisions. They are motivated by opportunities to grow and develop.”
Partner with schools
Another step cities should consider is reaching out to schools, Emerson says. Partnering with local schools is a way that cities can introduce young people to the career opportunities they offer.
Schools are always talking to their students about careers, so cities should make sure they are in the mix. Perhaps a city official could talk to a government class or participate in a “Career Day” at the school.
Some cities have already had success with this. In Northfield, city leaders partnered with the local high school and an organization called Youth First to offer paid internships.
Youth First, an organization that seeks to increase youth involvement in the community and help youth with career exploration, assisted the city’s internship program by marketing the program and recruiting students at area schools, explains Michelle Mahowald, communications and human resources director for the City of Northfield.
In addition, Northfield High School allowed city staff to set up a booth at the school during the lunch hour to meet and discuss the internship opportunities with interested students, Mahowald says.
Their efforts were successful, as they received 20 applications and hired two interns for the summer of 2017. Brynn Artley, a 2017 high school graduate, worked at the Northfield Public Library assisting with the Summer Reading Program. Siri Hoff, a high school senior this year, worked in the Public Works Department focusing on developing an emerald ash borer policy for the Streets & Parks Division. Managers of both areas were very happy with the work their interns did.
“With almost 550 children participating [in the Summer Reading Program], we really needed our intern to help make the program a success,” says Librarian Manager Leesa Wisdorf. “I was grateful that she was able to manage large numbers of youth. She was naturally a strong leader, able to quickly assess a situation and make good decisions.”
Streets & Parks Manager Tim Behrendt says his intern was thorough and professional. “She contacted multiple cities and tree contractors and got some very useful information,” he says. “I was impressed with her abilities and work ethic.”
Northfield Mayor Rhonda Pownell says the city’s internship program is an important tool to make young people aware of the careers that cities offer. Their involvement is imperative to the future of cities.
“Today’s youth are tomorrow’s leaders,” Pownell says. “Capturing their energy and enthusiasm while also giving them opportunities for career exploration is a win-win!”
From intern to leader
In some cases, city interns return to play significant roles. Two former Oakdale interns now serve the city as community development director and city administrator.
Oakdale City Administrator Bart Fischer took an internship in that city while pursuing his Master of Public Administration degree in 2002. Before that, “my only professional experience was at the state government level in the Minnesota Senate,” says Fischer, who started in his current position in 2015. “During my internship, I fell in love with local government!”
Fischer says it’s important to get the word to young people about city careers because he believes they think of government jobs only at the state and federal level. He wants the next generation to see that local government is where “the rubber hits the road. You can make a difference in people’s lives at the local level and see the fruits of your labor.”
As Oakdale can attest, internships are a great way to spark a young person’s interest in city government, and they can also help to build a potential workforce for the future.
But that’s not all, says Oakdale City Clerk Sue Barry. The city can also experience some immediate benefits. “Interns are able to dedicate time to in-depth research and report writing,” she says. “They are a great resource for those ‘if-we-only-had-time’ projects.”
Other involvement needed, too
While Emerson says it’s critical to attract more people to city careers, that’s not the only area where more engagement is needed. “I also want to see more people stepping up to run for elected office and volunteering for city boards and commissions,” she says.
In recent years, many cities have had local elections with just one candidate— or no candidates at all—on the ballot. “What are the barriers we face in recruiting these individuals?” she asks. “How do we ensure diverse community participation in city government?”
Serving on a board or commission is one option for getting involved that can be a little less overwhelming. So, if cities can encourage people to volunteer for those opportunities, that can often lead to an individual’s greater involvement.
“Many times, people start by serving on a board or commission, and then they end up running for elected office. Many of our city councilmembers got started that way,” Emerson says. “So, if we can get people to come and test the water— and they may not like it because it’s not for everybody—but for me, it’s the best job I’ve ever had!”
Claudia Hoffacker is web content and publications manager with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 215-4032.
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