Transitioning to a Job Outside of Local Government

By Casey Earp, Engagement Manager, Bang the Table – LinkedIn & Twitter


In August, ELGL articles from David Shannon and Deb Shoen highlighted the challenge of recruiting and maintaining talent in local government. What is missing from the dialogue is the view from the other side of the table. I want to take a few minutes away from watching Stranger Things to discuss how transitioning to a job outside of local government can be a good career move for you and the local government profession.

Making the decision to change jobs is one of the scariest things you will do. Let’s play make believe for a few minutes. Imagine you are in a position that is either a poor fit or comes with a low ceiling. As most readers know, local government opportunities are tough to come by.  You will have to make the difficult decision to either move, grind it out, or look for other career opportunities. Staying in a position that is not a good fit, where you don’t feel valued or you know there is low growth potential is disastrous for you and your team. It ruins your drive, your creativity and ultimately your production.

Simultaneously it is hard to make the case for organizations outside of local government to hire you. Continually focusing on skill development will help you mitigate this reality, it will also introduce you to all of the opportunities that are out there. Ultimately, taking a step back to think long term about your career and your passions can help make short term challenges and transitions seem less stressful.

As Steve Jobs said “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”

I am not urging anyone out of local government. It is a noble and rewarding career path. Sometimes though, opportunity knocks and you need to be in a position where you can jump. As someone that has recently taken this journey, here are a few things I learned:

  • Seek professional development opportunities that are attractive in multiple industries. Taking on challenging projects will open doors to these development opportunities and help you bring new skills into your organization and build your own professional capacity.
  • imagesBe frugal (Thanks captain obvious…). There is a lot of information on the interwebs about how much less stressed you will be if you have a six to twelve-month cushion in your savings. Obviously this is not always an option and I like to travel more than I like to save so I feel your pain. Just keep it in mind.
  • Mentor students and attend your alumni events. This is about building your network and paying it forward. It doesn’t hurt that you can have fun doing it also! I remember, vividly, the first time I sat down with a city manager in an informal setting. It changed my entire life. Whenever that manager was looking for some assistance, I would go out of my way to help. The people you mentor and meet will do the same.
  • Foster relationships with peers, colleagues, professors, recruiters, and anyone who will listen. The support structure in local government is one of the best aspects of working in the field. There are so many groups out there looking to help people navigate your career. Develop relationships with everyone you meet at conferences. You never know who your best friend will be.
  • Keep your eyes open for challenging projects. It is not every day you get the opportunity to work on leading edge stuff. When you do get that chance, volunteer for it. These projects can be intimidating but will build your reputation and your network.
  • Interview the organization. Do your research on why there is a vacancy, the history of the position and ask questions about what success looks like. This helps you understand the culture and shows that you are prepared for the interview.
  • download (1)Keep a list of projects and a brag folder in your inbox. A brag folder or “bfolder” may seem super weird and audacious but keeping one is some of the best advice I have ever received. If you get an email praising your work on a project keep it. It will remind you why you are in local government and also help tell the story of why you need a promotion at your review. Additionally, if you look to make the transition to the private sector, you can use these as reference points.
  • Look for good opportunities – in and out of government. Recently I was part of a team working on an internal communication/public engagement strategy. One day, on ELGL, I saw a notice for a position at a company called Bang the Table. I checked out the company and was excited to see a lot of the tools we had been discussing within the platform and turned in my resume. The point is, you never know when an opportunity will come up. Always keep your antenna up.

Whether it is Forbes , Gallop or CNN there are plenty of resources documenting that (broadly speaking) changing jobs within a year is the new normal. Working in multiple roles and for multiple companies/organizations should be a good thing for local government. You are exposed to new technology and different types of policies. The future is not doom and gloom but we know that we can count on having less resources and more expectations from the public. Developing skills outside of government could help you bring a fresh set of eyes back into an organization.

As was outlined in the previous articles, local government is going to find recruitment increasingly difficult. Outside of salaries, policies like work from home, paid maternity/paternity leave and unlimited vacation are going to make local government a difficult sell. Understanding that many local governments are implementing some of these types of policies, your organization might consider hiring someone with experience in creating and implementing such policies.  

Having a sense of purpose and general happiness with your career will make work easy for you.  You will be the most productive and creative you can be. If you can continually focus on developing yourself and your skill set you will become more attractive to industries outside of local government and your current organization. Finally, opportunity is a great thing, the recommendations above are not rocket science or earth shattering but they can help you appreciate the position that you are in and really value the right opportunities when they come your way.