From Ad to Offer: An Insider’s Guide to the Recruitment Process

Posted on September 9, 2014

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Our most popular columnist (based on web hits) Julie Underwood returns with an insider’s view of the recruitment process. Julie is the Daly City (CA) assistant city manager and former Shoreline (WA) city manager.

From Ad to Offer: An Insider’s Guide to the Recruitment Process

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By: Julie Underwood,  LinkedIn and Twitter

I had just earned my master’s degree and thought I’d be on my way to a fulfilling career. And while it has turned out this way, at the beginning, it wasn’t that easy. Like many students in MPA programs across the country, I had limited work experience in local government.

Since then, I’ve gained experience and an understanding of the skills necessary to succeed in local government. In previous articles, I’ve shared my idea of the skills needed to succeed in local government – The Rule of 5: How to Succeed in Local Government, Forecasting the Future of Local Government: 4 Observations Impacting Our Future, and Part II: The Future of Local Government – 6 Critical Skills to Strengthen.

The View from My Lens

download (5)What prompted me to want to share these insights is that someone recently reached out to me on LinkedIn for advice. This person had just graduated and they were applying for management analyst positions. They asked me to review their resume and to give them advice on finding a job. It occurred to me that not everyone coming out of graduate school may know how to go about getting a job in local government; they may not know how the system of recruiting, screening, interviewing and hiring worked.

This article is aimed at guiding those who do not yet have connections in local government, but their career objective is to work at the local level. I am hopeful that this “inside” knowledge will help you manage expectations and set realistic short-term career goals. I wanted to focus on the practical aspects of landing your first job in the public sector. To do so, I talked to a few cities who just completed recruitments for management analyst positions. Although their feedback is anecdotal, I think it can provide an understanding of how the system works.

50% of Applicants Meet the Minimums


When you’re applying for a job, you need to carefully review the job specifications (also referred to as the “job spec”); this is where the agency will outline the minimum requirements or qualifications, defined in quantitatively terms. So basically the agency will identify the number of years of experience that would qualify someone to “meet minimums” for the position.

For management analyst positions you may see a requirement ranging from two to three years. And for senior analyst positions, a range of four to five years with maybe a few years of supervisory experience.

download (4)The Human Resources Department’s main goal is to determine which applicants meet the minimum qualifications. Typically they will create a “meets minimums” or “highly meets minimums” pile of candidates, a “maybe” pile of candidates, and a “do not meet minimums” pile.  Obviously, you want your application to make it onto the “meets minimum” stack.

One city that I spoke with mentioned that of the 100 applicants that they had, only about 50% met minimums. Many of the applicants who were the 50% that did not meet minimums were recent graduate students.

Now, just because someone is in the “meets minimum” stack doesn’t mean they’ll get a call for an interview. It merely means that they’ve met one hurdle.

“Screening the Screened”

Depending on the number of applicants meeting the minimum qualifications, there may be further screening of the pool.

2007-12-05-chatter-telephoneOne popular screening activity is the initial phone interview. In some cases, a small internal panel of two to three people will conduct a 30 minute phone interview of about 12 to 16 candidates. This helps get clarification on their experience and background. This pool gets narrowed down to half of the original so about six to eight. A city may cast the net wide in this initial stage, since during the process one or two candidates may withdraw due to other job offers.

Another popular screening tool is having a pool of candidates complete a written exercise or supplemental questionnaire. The exercise could be to write a sample staff report, memo or complete a handful of work related essay questions.

Another city that I spoke with narrowed their pool at the beginning of the recruitment. So in other words, they capped the number of applications received to 50. And in fact, they received 50 applications on the first day the job was posted.  Once the quota is met the recruitment is closed. Now of those 50 applications received, approximately 10 were identified by HR as “highly meets minimums.”

70% of Internships Lead to a Job Offer

For many recent MPA graduates, the most glaring gap in their resume is the lack of professional work experience. To begin to develop experience, you may want to consider an internship. This is how many of us, including myself, gained valuable local government management experience. After graduating with my MPA, I worked as a management assistant for the City of Rockville, Maryland, City Manager’s Office.  I recently read on that seven out of 10 internships result in a full time job offer. In fact, as a result of my internship, I was able to compete for the Assistant to the City Manager position in Rockville and gain even more experience working there.

wnA full-time internship program worth noting is ICMA’s Local Government Management Fellowship. Additionally, two nationally recognized internship programs, which provide an ongoing commitment to develop future local government leaders are: City of Phoenix Management Intern Program and Long Beach Management Assistant Program. ELGL member Will Norris is a “graduate” of the Long Beach program.

Moreover, ICMA provides a list of internships and information on internships and job postings can be found through ELGL, MMANC and MMASC, just to name a few. And while working for a city may be a long-term objective, don’t rule out working for counties, special districts, council of governments, governmental associations, or non-profits

Over the years, I’ve also seen graduates take advantage of Americorps, a program that provides on the job training at nonprofits, local and state agencies. They have a few focus areas such as disaster preparedness and environmental stewardship that would certainly align with local government efforts.

Listen to the Babe

Finding a local government is a tough but fair process. We’re proud of working in institutions that do not support cronyism nor nepotism.  We can be sure that when someone is hired it’s based on their merit and experience, and not on who they know. When it’s all said and done, you’re competing with others who want the same job you do and there could be scores of qualified applicants or just a few dozen. No matter what, it is a competition.

download (3)The competitive nature of the job market increases the importance of finding a way to “get your foot” in the door of an organization. There are stories after stories of city managers, assistant city managers, and directors who started out working in entry level positions such as Recreation Coordinators, Administrative Assistants, and the like. One of the best ways to advance in one’s career is through internal promotions. The organization that you work for has a chance to witness your capabilities, commitment, and judgment. And the knowledge that you’ve gained of the organization and community sets you apart from the external competition.

We all remember what it was like to start our careers. And it can be frustrating, but it’s important to manage your expectations and to set realistic and achievable goals. Baseball legend Babe Ruth said, “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.” Keep going, don’t give up, you will get there.

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