I Have to Ask You: Is Local Government Inviting to Young Professionals?

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week Alyssa Wolverton (LinkedIn) discusses your experience as a young professional in local government.


I don’t know if I am allowed to honestly answer the question “is local government inviting to young professionals?” It would help my odds at getting a job in local government if I wrote about the great times I had working in government and how local government can attract millennials. I mean, what do I have to gain from telling people about my real experience? The story where my boss cried to me because she told me I was too optimistic, or I’d be so bored at my desk sometimes I would cry? Is it worth explaining how it felt like my work didn’t matter or how didn’t get honest feedback?

Good news! I am a Texan with a bit of experience and a lot of candor. I don’t have any preoccupation with telling you that local government is not inviting to young professionals. However, like any good public administrator, I will offer a solution to the problem, and I will argue it is vital for young people to choose to work in government. (Also, I don’t represent the opinion of an entire population or generation or region, so keep that in mind.)

As I’ve racked my brain trying to understand why local government didn’t leave me with pride for serving the public, I realized it was about expectations. I have certain expectations for a work force, and the work force has a certain expectation with me, and I don’t think they lined up.

What I wanted was similar to what anyone wants: decent pay, good location, and the chance to learn. I wanted the best out of my experiences. I wanted to be challenged and changed. I wanted to be exposed to what I like and don’t like. I wanted to meet people who would encourage me and become professional colleagues, friends, and mentors. Most importantly, I wanted to find a place where I can shine and use my talents.

So, I had expectations of what the work force would be like, but I had to ask myself,

What do governments think when they hire young people?

Do they hire them to shuck off some extra work they’ve been meaning to get to?

Do they care about practically teaching their young people to encourage their growth?

I honestly don’t know. Every organization is different. As a student (this year will be 18 years), I was evaluated on my performance. I received feedback, and when I did well, I moved up. I took risks. I could stand out from my peers and find out what I wanted to do. Because of that, I graduated magna cum laude, lead an organization for two years, and believed I would love serving the public.

And then, none of that mattered in my internship.

In my two years in two different government internships, I went from a confident, skilled, and well-developed leader to a helpless, unskilled and disheartened barely-professional. I knew there would be red tape. I knew that people were not going to take me seriously because of the bullshit “millennialisms” that plague our click-bait society. I knew that not every moment would fill me with butterflies and rainbows, but damn, I didn’t think it was going to kill my dreams of serving the public.

I don’t want to say my experience was a total loss. I met some of the best people (professionally and personally), and sought unique opportunities to do new things. The problem came from me expecting more guidance, more feedback, and more recognition for my work and effort. To be fair, I’m sure I failed to meet their expectations too.

Now that we know about my experience, I want to offer suggestion on how we can change expectations, on both sides. If you think about it, what can a young professional offer an organization?

Energy.

New perspective.

Optimism.  

The ability to learn new tools quickly.

The opportunity to be molded by your leaders.

An extra set of hands.

I had all of that, and none of it was appreciated.

Energy? I felt like I was a nuisance. Ideas? They’re great, but we can’t do them today. Helping hand? I was good at that, and so was everyone else.. (That was one of my favorite parts: feeling like I had contributed to the team who cared about citizens.) The point is private businesses love that s*** because they know that’s how you create happy consumers and keep good people, but those values aren’t relevant to government.

Risk is expensive.

We’ve been doing something a certain way and it’s worked for years.

I don’t have time to give you advice or correct your mistake.

These statements aren’t necessarily untrue, but they discourage young people, and squander their strengths in an organization.

For governments wanting to attract younger professionals, I’ll stick with the facts: it’s proven that young people are attracted to government work because of opportunities for advancement and the altruistic ideas of helping others (Feeney, 2008). However you find talent, allowing space for young people to improve themselves, their work, and the people they serve is an amazing victory for your organization.

My advice comes from working with exceptional people, and figuring out how to improve government without trampling the systems in place. To make the most out of your experience in government:

  1. Find a mentor. Hands down the best experience (and wish I had even more of). I found someone who believed in me and cared about my growth. This may be set up through your organization, or it may come from matched personality, values, or interests. Either way, having a mentor will make the rough patches more doable, and the victories rock.
  2. Push the boundaries through the right avenues. I achieved some successful in implementing my innovations because I used established paths in the organization. If you have new ideas, find champions of the cause that see the merit of the idea. Don’t be afraid to do some (or most) of the work to move the idea forward. There will always be red tape, but sometimes the pursuit of an idea gives you experience and insight than accomplishing it. You never know what seeds your planting for the future.
  3. Always, always, ALWAYS help with a servant’s heart. This is a huge in Texas. It doesn’t matter your pedigree, age, or any other distinguishing feature. It always helps to lend a hand. As a woman, I was tempted not to participate in “clerical” activities because I was worried I would get labeled as a secretary. But it always benefited my character and persuasive ability when I actively sought opportunities to help, big or small. Plus, niceness goes a long way itself.

Maybe it’s because I’ve only been an intern in local government. Maybe it’s because I’m 23 and getting my master’s degree in public administration (so I haven’t had that much time to work). Sometimes I think it’s because I was born with a heart for service, but a spirit of an entrepreneur. Regardless, this is how I feel about government, and a part of me hopes it changes.

Government must change how they think about the younger generation. State and federal governments have complex problems, but citizens are looking to local government for balance and unity. Baby Boomers are retiring at an alarming rate, and citizen demands for service are soaring. Call me crazy, but I don’t think we can do things like we’ve done before. We need trained, encouraged, and service-oriented young people to meet community expectations.

Feeney, M. K. (2007). Sector perceptions among state-level public managers. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory18(3), 465-494.