Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from Jan-Feb 2018 issue

St. Paul to City Hall: Developing Future City Leaders

David Unmacht, LMC executive directorBy David Unmacht

The memories of the conversation with my son are vivid. It was 2011 and he was beginning his freshman year in college, and was genuinely uncertain about his major. He is a people person with an excellent blend of self-confidence, with social and political curiosity—a mayor-in-waiting.

I mildly suggested, OK, deliberately mentioned, what about political science? Public administration? “Nah, Dad,” he casually replied. “I’m not interested in government.” I did not take it personally, but I admit, I was disappointed.

Fast forward to today, and my son’s opinion is more the norm than the exception with the new talent entering the job market. Using a classic business principle, the demand for public-sector employees and elected leaders exceeds the supply available in the marketplace. A correction is needed.

Like our economy, you may wonder, is this a blip or aberration? Well, in my 35 years in local government, I do not recall the market being this far out of balance. Spending six-and-a-half years in the recruiting business gave me great insights into the marketplace and public-sector employment conditions. I could see the trends: high expectations of employers, dwindling applicant pools, and difficult recruitments.

Highly publicized data shows that many Minnesota cities have lacked candidates to run for local office. Based on that fact, along with the increasing difficulty of filling key city staff vacancies, League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) President Jo Emerson is focusing her presidential year on the subject of developing future public-sector leaders.

Emerson recently attended LMC Regional Meetings to ask city officials for ideas on barriers, challenges, opportunities, and ideas for the future. Her work will help the League Board of Directors develop ideas and possible action steps in the coming year.

Last fall, I was asked to speak to the Roseville Optimist Club on the question of how to seek and develop our future public-sector leaders. Upon reflection, I introduced two principles with four ideas. I firmly believe that these ideas are sound; I also fully understand that systemic changes require a level of risk, leadership, hard work, and time.

My emphasis is primarily on how to attract and retain local government staff, but there is a link to elected officials as well. For ease of presentation, the principles are based on two concepts:

  • To help prepare candidates for employment, and
  • To help prepare our organizations to be relevant in a competitive job market.

With respect to helping prepare candidates for employment, I use my experience as an adjunct professor in two university graduate degree programs as a base. I am convinced we need to reach out and progressively work with educational institutions at all levels (K-12, trade schools, technical and community colleges, and universities) to develop innovative partnerships and relevant curriculum based on practical and experiential learning skills to prepare students of all ages for local government careers.

To help prepare our organizations to be relevant to compete for employees with corporations like Target, Amazon, and Tesla, I offer three ideas.

First, we need to actively and more aggressively promote what municipal governments have to offer: multi-faceted jobs and careers in many disciplines. Self-promotion is not natural for us. We have been too “Minnesota nice” in this area; it’s time to up our game.

Second, we need to recognize the opportunities and potential of people from non-government/non-traditional careers. And, with our ever-changing demographics and diversity, we need to reach out to people of color. The marketplace for employers and employees is very different today than it was five or 10 years ago. There is a lot of untapped talent in these two groups; we need to be on the radar of these job hunters.

Finally, we must rethink our traditional business practices, systems, and employment models. Some of our practices are outdated and ill-equipped to compete in today’s world. We need to form partnerships with bargaining units, city groups and affiliates, and notably the state Legislature to authorize and form creative models that attract the next generation of workers.

It’s not enough to place an ad online or in the newspaper and hope candidates apply. This recruitment approach may work occasionally, but it doesn’t solve our systemic challenges. Let’s go back to basic business principles: We must invest in our people and organizations to compete for new workers.

My goal is to find the League’s niche and role in this transformation. We want to be investors, leaders, and facilitators in this renewed effort.

David Unmacht is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: dunmacht@lmc.org or (651) 281-1205.

Read the Jan-Feb 2018 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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