The Silver Tsunami, Part 3: Solving the Crisis

“Few consider the critical job of developing talent. If we in local government management do not immediately confront this replacement gap, our long-term legacy and contribution to the profession will be in serious jeopardy.”- The International City/County Management Association
When we last left our story (the Silver Tsunami, the pending retirement tidal wave of almost two-thirds of California’s and the nation’s city managers), we had examined some of the factors that have contributed to this crisis. We’ve discussed some of the causes, but now let’s focus on some of the solutions.
A 2002 survey by the City Managers Department of the League of California Cities found that the majority of assistant city managers decided on their career in either undergrad or graduate school. Of the reasons they chose their career, most indicated that they wanted to make a difference in their community, though influence by a family member involved in local government and timing (jobs were available in the public sector) were also key factors.
Retired Costa Mesa City Manager Allen Roeder indicated that there were many potential career paths for the aspiring city manager:
“The profession has a long history of being inclusive with respect to the migration of individuals from other disciplines into the city management profession. When I started my career in the mid-1970s, there were a good number of city managers who came to the profession out of the public works field – many as registered civil engineers. In the 1980s & ’90s, we had more managers coming out of the planning profession which, in my opinion, was a reflection of the increased focus on land use by locally elected officials. Since 2000, I think the focus has shifted somewhat more to those with a financial background, although not necessarily as finance directors or CPAs. One might speculate – given the increased emphasis on labor relations in reducing the cost of services – that candidates from the human resources field may be an emerging trend. “
So there are a lot of different places we could be looking for tomorrow’s city managers. The question is, are we casting a wide enough net? Katie, a junior in psychology at UC Berkeley, said no one at her school had even mentioned local government as a career option. When asked if she would consider a career in government, she replied “With the current job market and number of students graduating with similar degrees, I feel that there would be no reason for me to deny a potential career in local government. Any career that I feel would be rewarding and would be helpful to my community is something that I would always consider.”
So here we have a student in a relevant degree program at a top-tier university, who is open to considering a career in local government – and local government has not even tried to recruit her.
Even students who find their way to local government are often discouraged from pursuing it as a career. One graduate student interviewed had a part time internship position at the City of Oakland. Though she was interested in staying on, the city’s hiring freeze made a job offer an impossibility. A year later, to the best of her knowledge, every intern in her program has found work in either the private or nonprofit sector. “There’s only so long you can hang around making $20 an hour 20 hours a week when you have student loans to re-pay.”
Many entry-level positions were eliminated during the Great Recession, but those are the very positions that are, and have been, the key pathway for people beginning their career in local government. We’ve closed and locked the door on this career path, and now we wonder why no one is walking through that door.
If we fish where and when the fish are biting, we get the results we want. At the University of Southern California, Chris, a recent Masters of Public Administration graduate, credited the City/County Management Fellowship with putting him on the path he is now: “At the beginning of the program, city management ranked third on my list of possible professions, below regional or state government and academia. By the end of my first year, I was fairly committed to local government, and at this point I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.”
The system worked! Chris is now a Management Aide in the City Manager’s Office in South Pasadena.
We have met the enemy, and he is us. We have all the tools we need to create a vibrant class of highly-qualified, intelligent and enthusiastic local government workers, who will serve our cities and communities well in the years to come. Big corporations, major nonprofits and even the federal government get the best and the brightest by making themselves known on campus, by offering well-publicized internships and by pairing the best students with mentors. We can and should do the same.
At BOLT Staffing we believe that positive change and innovation is a good thing. We partner every day with cities, counties, and special districts providing them with both long term and short term staffing solutions that are cost effective, productive, and solution oriented. We invite your comments below.
This article is the third in a series about city managers. Click here to go to the final installment.

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