WHY CHOOSE A CAREER IN MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENT? Listen to Podcast
There are so many careers to choose from in life. Some statistics say you will change careers 5-7 times during your working life. Younger people will change jobs more frequently than older people. But regardless of where you are now, I encourage all of you to consider a career in municipal government, which is public service.
If you’re working in a private sector business, you may have (or can acquire) transferrable skills to switch careers into municipal government. Finance/Accounting, Human Resources, and Administrative professionals all have the ability to easily transition with very little training.
If you’re already working in municipal government, let’s talk about how you can “grow” and develop your municipal skill set to “move up” or “move laterally” into a new municipal career path.
All YOU NEED IS LOVE…AND PASSION FOR PEOPLE AND PUBLIC SERVICE!
If you have a passion for public service and helping people, you can acquire the skills needed for most positions in municipal government. As the saying goes, “we can train for skill but not for attitude”. That means if you have a super customer service attitude and love serving your community, we can teach you the skills you need to succeed.
SO WHY CHOOSE A CAREER IN MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENT PUBLIC SERVICE?
There are many reasons for choosing a career in public service, specifically in local government, however, the four (4) most important reasons in my opinion are as follows:
1. You love people and you have a passion for public service.
2. Pay is competitive. My starting pay in 1990 as Administrative Analyst was $2,500 monthly, which is about $5,000 monthly in today’s dollars.
3. Job security and stability.
4. Public employee pensions: My pension is 2.7% @ 55, which means I would get 2.7% for every year in public service multiplied by my highest single year’s earnings. Do the math. It’s great!
I will go into these four reasons for choosing a career in municipal government, but first I want to give you a little background, history, and my personal career journey as a municipal employee, so please bear with me as I use my “story” for your “benefit”.
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
Municipal governments are created under the authority of their state to form organizations that will serve the communities in their jurisdiction.
Although there are many different types of organizations that are considered a “municipality”, the one most people think of is their incorporated City, Town, or Village. I will use City to refer to all three.
Over 92% of all City governments and their organizations in America serve a population of under 25,000, which means the vast majority of City governments make up the “small-town America” we may be familiar with.
So as an individual who wants a career as a municipal employee in a City government organization, you will most likely end up working in a municipality serving a very small population. Working for a small City puts you face to the face with the local community, which can be very satisfying, as well as challenging.
Please refer to my CitySpeak podcast episode 4 to learn more about the political challenges, especially in a small City organization.
Most of my 30-year career as a municipal employee was also working for City organizations of population under 25,000. However, I did also work for a couple Cities that were closer to the 100,000 population. This was a great experience, but I had to learn different management techniques and develop different skills to succeed as a Finance Director in a larger City.
In future CitySpeak podcasts, I will discuss in greater detail the difference skills needed to succeed in small vs large City organizations.
WHY CHOOSE A CAREER IN MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENT?
The most important reason I chose a career in City government was because this was suggested to me by SIGI (System of Interactive Guidance Information) when I was at San Diego State University (SDSU). SIGI3 is a comprehensive, interactive, computer-assisted career guidance program designed to assist you in making career choices. SIGI combines personal and occupational characteristic to identify career options for you.
If it hadn’t been for this SIGI assessment, I may never have considered a career in municipal government. By the way, I recall the SIGI assessment I took at SDSU required hours to complete as I was asked many questions to help SIGI make a career recommendation to me. Today may take less time, but whatever time SIGI (or other career assessment software) takes, it is well worth the time as this could affect your career decisions for the rest of your life.
Anyway, after my assessment session with SIGI, I was given two (2) career recommendations. This was pretty amazing because the other students in my class were getting 10, 12, or more careers on the report printed out by SIGI.
You want to know what were the two career recommendations for me? The first was Retail Store Manager. The second one was City Manager!
I had worked in retail since I was a teenager, so that made sense, but City Manager? I had to look up City Manager. I didn’t know what this was. After reviewing the requirements to become a City Manager, I had the bug in my ear to pursue a career as a City Manager, or some type of City job I could turn into a career.
MY MUNICIPAL CAREER TRACK…MY STORY MAY HELP YOU
So within six months in 1990, I had graduated SDSU with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration with an emphasis in Finance. I attended the career fairs at SDSU, but I was not interested in any of the representatives who were there, except maybe Union Bank because I had worked as Bank Teller from 1981 to 1986. However, there were no City government recruiters attending the SDSU career fair, so I had to look for my City job on my own.
In 1990, I visited my aunt in Hemet, California, which is was a small City in Riverside County with 36,094 population. While visiting Hemet, I decided to check the “help wanted” section, and there was the job opening that would open up the door to my 30-year career as a municipal employee.
The position was Accounting Technician, available in the Finance Department of the City of Hemet. I was overqualified with a bachelor’s degree, but I thought this was my “foot in the door” job to become a City Manager. So I applied and went through the process. After a month, I was sitting in the hot chair, interviewing in front of a panel of three people: Kathy Black and Rich Jacobs, both Accounting Managers, and Steve Temple, Finance Director. After the interview, Rich Jacobs asked me, “John you are overqualified for this Accounting Technician job. Wouldn’t you rather be interested in the Administrative Analyst job opening we have”? I answered, “yes, but I had not seen this advertised anywhere”. Within the next 30 days, I would have gone through two other interviews with the Chamber of Commerce and staff from the City of Hemet. I was hired in 1990 as Administrative Analyst at City of Hemet.
Here is the career path I would take over the 30 years in my career:
• 1990 – 1995 Administrative Analyst at City of Hemet, CA
• 1995 – 1998 Finance Director at City of San Jacinto, CA
• 1998 – 1999 Accounting Manager at City of La Quinta, CA
• 1999 – 2005 Administrative Services Director / City Treasurer at City of Imperial Beach, CA
• 2005 – 2006 Assistant General Manager at Fallbrook Public Utility District
• 2006 – Present Left CalPERS Pension System to work as Municipal Consultant to Cities
• 2007 – 2011 Finance Director at City of Pico Rivera, CA
• 2008 – 2009 Controller at City of Gardena, CA
• 2012 – 2013 Finance Director at City of Buellton, CA
• 2014 – 2015 Finance Director at City of Goleta, CA
• 2015 – 2016 Finance Director at City of Lemoore, CA
• 2016 – 2019 Finance Director / Principal Accountant at City of Coalinga, CA
• 2020 – 2020 Finance Director at Ontario International Airport Authority, CA
Today I’m 57 years old and not ready to retire. I have much experience to share and too much passion for municipal government to call it quits. God willing, I hope to continue working as a “contract” municipal employee for as long as municipal organizations feel they’re getting value from my service.
KEYS TO SUCCESS IN MY PERSONAL MUNICIPAL CAREER PATH
There are many paths to success in municipal government careers. I’ve just shared with you the 12 different municipal organizations I’ve worked for during the 1990 – 2020 30-year period of my working life. I actually started working in 1975 in fast food, and then I worked retail through 1981, then as Bank Teller 1981 – 1986, then as a Bookkeeper 1986 – 1990. So I actually had 15 years work experience by the time I landed my first job at the City of Hemet in 1990.
Those 15 years of work experience was only partially related to my first City job as Administrative Analyst, however, you can’t discount the “real world” value of working, regardless of the job, to give you the muscle and endurance to succeed in municipal government.
My big break, if you will, was as Finance Director at the City of San Jacinto, CA. How did I land a job as Finance Director after 5 years experience as an Administrative Analyst?
The traditional career path to becoming a City Finance Director is you start out as an Accountant for a couple years, then as Senior Accountant for another year or two, then Accounting Manager for a year or two, then Deputy Finance Director for at least one year. Yet I had leaped from Administrative Analyst, which is at or about the professional level of an Accounting Manager, and went right to being a Finance Director. However, because I had almost 20 years of practical work experience, I was able to land the Finance Director position at the age of 33 with just 5 years experience as Administrative Analyst.
I also started my MPA (Master of Public Administration) program al CSUSB in 1992, taking classes at night, after work. This contributed to the academic and practical experience in public policy, budgeting, and organizational management experience I would need to succeed in executive public management.
Also, I had an insatiable desire to learn every aspect of municipal government, taking on every special project I could get my hands on. During my 5 years as Administrative Analyst, I took on fee studies, cost allocation plans, implementation of ERP software systems, implementation of “best practices” in budgeting, and other change management initiatives, and other projects which were usually “farmed out” to consultants. My most important project that contributed to my success in making the leap from Administrative Analyst to Finance Director was the lead role I took in championing and implementing the formation of a JPA (joint powers authority) to carry out a $1.5 million City-to-City Recycling program between the City of Hemet, CA and neighboring City of San Jacinto, CA in 1994-1995.
CAPSTONE MUNICIPAL CAREER PROJECT: CITY-TO-CITY RECYCLING PROGRAM
I would need an entire article to explain all the details of the City-to-City Recycling program I take personal pride in bringing to fruition, however, I will keep this account of my “capstone municipal career project” to a few sentences.
The City of Hemet and the City of San Jacinto, like all Cities in California, were under pressure to meet the State of California’s Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989 (AB 939), which required the Cities to divert the trash from landfills, reducing 25% of the solid waste by 1995 and 50% by 2000. There were many fees and fines the Cities would face if the 25% and 50% waste reduction goals were not met by 1995 and 2000, respectively.
In 1994, while I was Administrative Analyst, I wrote a proposal to my City Manager and Finance Director at the City of Hemet, CA to form a JPA (something I learned in the MPA program) with neighboring City of San Jacinto, CA at a price per resident and business that would beat out the private sector.
After 9 months of working on this JPA proposal, I personally brought together staff from both City of Hemet and City of San Jacinto, which included City Manager, Finance, Public Works, and City Attorney from both Cities. In 1994, I made several presentations to the public to receive input, then, with the help of the City Attorneys, I prepared the resolutions and staff reports to hold the public hearings and City Council presentations to both the City of Hemet and the City of San Jacinto. In late 1994, I brought together City Council members from the City of Hemet and the City of San Jacinto, on a single dais, and the Hemet – San Jacinto City-to-City Recycling JPA program was born!
This Recycling JPA was a success! The residents and businesses would end up paying 30% lower recycling rates than they would under a private contactor, local jobs were created, and the City of Hemet, who created the program and would provide the administrative support to the program, would yield a $450,000 annual “cost recovery” benefit to it’s City budget, through the redistribution of costs.
My Finance Director and City Manager, and I were very proud of my capstone project accomplishment while an Administrative Analyst at the City of Hemet. The City Manager and Council members of neighboring City of San Jacinto were also impressed. They were so impressed that just six months later, after I competed with seasoned Finance Directors and CPAs and Auditors, I won the Finance Director post at the City of San Jacinto.
So look out for your municipal “capstone” project opportunity to establish your value to your career path. These opportunities are everywhere. How do I know this? Because the opportunities to improve local government (and government in general) are everywhere!
YOUR MUNICIPAL CAREER PATH: HOW WILL YOU ACHIEVE IT?
Now I realize not everybody wants to become a Finance Director, a City Manager, or any other municipal executive for that matter. However, we all want to succeed in our jobs. And even better, we don’t want “just a job”, we want a career!
I trademarked the saying “It’s not just a job, it’s public service”® through the United State Trademark and Patent office. Why? Because I believe in public service. And a career as a municipal employee is the best type of government career there is!
So whether you want to become a City Maintenance Worker, an Accounts Payable Clerk, a Receptionist, or even the City Custodian, put your best foot forward and go for it!
We have a list of the most important municipal jobs my company MuniTemps is requested on a regular basis.
Click here to see these jobs: Click Here.
3 MORE REASONS TO CHOOSE A CITY JOB: GOOD PAY, STABILITY, AND RETIREMENT
My Municipal Employee Compensation Package in 1990
I told you at the outset that my very first City job in 1990 was as Administrative Analyst at the City of Hemet. The starting salary was $2,500 a month plus a generous pension and benefits package given to para-professional municipal employees. In today’s dollars, the $2,500 monthly salary is equivalent to a salary today double that about $5,000 in monthly salary. The total time off I received at City of Hemet as an Administrative Analyst was 31 days of vacation, 5 days management leave, 11 paid holidays, and mandatory sick leave. This does not even include the training leave time and excellent health insurance and college tuition reimbursement.
Needless to say, money, compensation, and pay IS an important reason to pursue a City job. And I’m happy to say that all the municipal government organizations I worked for worked hard to provide a “living wage” to all of its employees.
Job Stability and Security
The other benefit from working as a municipal employee is job security and stability. As my Finance Director Steve Temple told me in 1992, “there is more fairness working for local government organizations than in other type of jobs”. He was right. Although there are some abuses to the job security benefits by some employees, for the most part, municipal employees want to do a good job and stay in their positions. Job security and stability is a huge benefit from working in municipal government.
Public Employee Pension
The other benefit is retirement. Although there are disparities, and abuses, that have occurred in California from its pension program CalPERS, the fact remains that this is an important benefit that attracts and retains professionals in public service. Although I worked 30 years as a municipal professional, only 15 of those years was in the CalPERS retirement system. Yet the pension is superior to that of the private sector. However, as money becomes tight, public employee pension benefits are being reduced. Nevertheless, municipal employees will enjoy a pension along with millions of other public employees for their years of service.
The golden years of public pensions during the last 30 years may not be as present today because of the financial stress that municipal governments have been facing. Also, taxpayer revolts through the direct democracy tools of voter initiatives continues to highlight the fiscal impact of public pensions.
However, I believe that if municipal employees “reinvent” themselves, their Departments, and organizations, with a focus on A+ customer service, we can win over the stakeholders of the municipal organizations to provide the most competitive compensation for municipal employees.
I’ll discuss this in a future CitySpeak newsletter, and I already discussed this in a prior CitySpeak blog which you can read about in my MuniTemps website, but the generous municipal employee benefits I received in 1990 were not required to attract me to accept the Administrative Analyst position at City of Hemet. Click here to read the article. Bottom line, these benefits were excellent and I did work hard to keep my job at the City, so they were effective to employee retention once I realized how competitive these municipal employee fringe benefits were back then, and still are in some City organizations.
The money, job stability, and pension security is nice, but the most important reason why I have appreciated my career in municipal government is public service.
Working on initiatives and customer service that benefits the residents and businesses of my community is something I take great pride in.
Never let the cynicism or politics of nasty politicians take away your sense of community and public service. There is no job like that of municipal employees anywhere!
Now put your best foot forward and go pursue your dream job in municipal government. My company MuniTemps is here to assist you with a “foot in the door” temp job that can easily lead to a “perm” job with a City government or one of many municipal organizations in California and throughout the United States.
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