By Andrew Tellijohn
A two-year fellowship program conceived by the League of Minnesota Cities, in conjunction with the cities of Minnetonka and Delano, is giving two local graduate students experience that is shaping their future careers in the public sector.
Madison Hagenau, from Hamline University, and Ada Moreno, from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, were the first students selected for the Minnesota Cities Fellowship Program, which aims to help build the next generation of public-sector employees. They both started their work in the program in June 2018.
As fellows, they are spending eight months working in each city and then another eight months working at the League. The fellowship is designed to provide a well-rounded experience that will prepare them for their first full-time jobs.
One of the goals of the program is to help ensure that there are qualified young workers ready to step in as Baby Boomers continue retiring. It also adds young perspectives on issues cities face.
“It has been a priority for us because we know young people have great ideas and can contribute to what cities do in a meaningful way,” says League Deputy Director Luke Fischer.
The fellowship, which is currently considered a pilot project, is an expansion of an existing internship program the League has long had in place. While that internship offers tremendous hands-on experience, it doesn’t give students direct city experience.
“There are a lot of interesting things happening in small cities; there are a lot of interesting things happening in large cities,” Fischer says. “We figured if we could help our interns get those experiences before they come to the League, their experiences would be much richer. And when they leave, we’d be able to hopefully help them get networked into that first job.”
The City of Delano (population 6,058) also has a decade-long history of having interns work as part of city staff, says City Administrator Phil Kern. The city has had conversations in the past with other communities about collaborating on a program like this one, where interns would gain experience in the smaller city of Delano and a nearby larger city.
“When the opportunity presented itself to work with the League and the City of Minnetonka, we were very excited,” Kern says. “So far, it’s been great.”
One of the benefits of the program is that the fellows start getting their hands dirty in real work right from the start.
Hagenau, who is pursuing a master’s degree in public administration, worked in Delano from June 2018 to January 2019. Moreno, whose focus is on land use and urban design, worked at the League during that time, and then the two switched places.
They are enjoying the variety of their work. One day they might be working with the Public Works Department and the next they could be working in planning.
“On day one, interns are thrust into the everyday matters of the city,” Kern says. “It’s a wide variety of things. There isn’t a part of city business they are not involved with. They are involved with every level of services we provide and every level of business we conduct.”
Both fellows say they are grateful for the hands-on nature of the job. Moreno’s currently engaged in helping strategize ways the City of Delano could increase the availability of affordable housing. She’s also working on communications, particularly around the production of a quarterly newsletter.
Moreno says she’s still deciding whether she wants to pursue a career working directly for a city or with a consulting firm, but either way, the experience she’s getting through the fellowship will be very valuable.
Coursework at school is interesting and useful, but theoretical, Moreno says. “This gives me the immersion I needed,” she says, adding that when she saw the application, “I was appreciative of the variety of experiences I was going to get. I really wanted to get that hands-on practical approach to planning.”
Hagenau agrees. She wants to stay in local government, though she’s not sure in what capacity. She worked in Delano with city building officials and the fire chief to overhaul its emergency management plan. She also helped set up a youth liaison program through which high school students are collaborating with the City Council.
She also appreciates the opportunity to network among many city officials at different meetings involving the League. “I feel like I’ve had so many opportunities,” Hagenau says. “That’s something I’m super grateful for.”
It’s a program that benefits both the fellows and the professionals, Kern says.
“They will leave their fellowship having done a lot of different things in three different organizations,” he says. “For us, we get someone who is passionate about local government, who is interested in making an impact, who is willing to roll up their sleeves and take on pretty much any project that comes their way, from research to problem solving to presentation and policy development.”
The City of Minnetonka is eager to start playing its role in a few weeks.
As a suburban community with a population just over 50,000 located minutes from the Twin Cities that operates a city manager form of government, Minnetonka provides a different perspective for incoming fellows, says Assistant City Manager Perry Vetter.
Vetter says he agrees with the idea that this program gives back to the profession by helping ensure there will be strong candidates for city government positions as retiring Baby Boomers leave openings.
“It’s in our best interest to ensure that we have a well-trained, well-educated workforce,” he says. “Experience matters. The more experience we can give to people at various stages of their career will not only help our profession but will also help our region.”
The program will help Hagenau and Moreno figure out their future paths and, city and League officials hope, will eventually deepen the pool of people looking to work in local government.
Part of the reason Delano got involved in the program, Kern says, is “to help make sure we are doing our part to build well-trained, productive local government employees for the future, not just for ourselves, but for other communities in Minnesota.”
One of the League’s priorities is to develop the next generation of public-sector leaders. This fellowship was tailored specifically for students working on a master’s degree in public administration. The League reached out to about a half-dozen schools with such programs.
“That helps us get really good candidates that are focused on learning,” Fischer says.
In the long term, Fischer adds, the hope is that this program creates a model that other organizations can use in partnership with large and small cities across other parts of the state.
“We’re hoping to take out some of the hurdles to creating a shared internship like this,” he says. “We already have a sample agreement, job descriptions, and tools for other agencies to use to create similar programs.”
The organization is too early in the program to have a specific plan, but Fischer says the League would be willing to help reach out to some of those larger organizations about participating.
Fischer envisions scenarios where, for example, various regional planning agencies or an extension office through the University of Minnesota might head up a program with other cities. This would “give up-and-coming people in this public-sector track a way to have different experiences with different agencies,” he says.
Ultimately, he says he hopes this program will lead others to provide opportunities similar to those Hagenau and Moreno are currently experiencing.
“The big thing is these internships can really give the participant a wonderful experience and prepare them for their first job,” Fischer adds. “The agencies also can benefit so much if they are willing to invest time and energy into developing the next generation.”
Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer based in Richfield, Minnesota.
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