The Attitudes of Young Professionals about Careers in Local Government

By James H. Svara
Professor, School of Public Affairs, and Director, Center for Urban Innovation
Arizona State University

Jim Svara is a member of the ICMA Strategic Planning Committee and welcomes your comments on the future of ICMA to convey to the committee. He can be reached at

What do members of the "next generation" think about their careers? There is widespread recognition of the generational change that will be occurring in the personnel in local government. In separate but related efforts, the Alliance for Innovation and the ICMA Strategic Planning Committee are seeking to identify the major forces shaping change in local government. Generational turnover is certainly one of them. There is much discussion and many actions being taken to attract a new generation of professionals to local government in general and to prepare to become city and county managers in particular. It is easy to fall into the trap of trying to figure out how to entice young people to pursue the same career path for the same reasons as earlier generations. It appears that young professionals have different attitudes about careers that must be taken into account in developing effective recruitment and development plans.

The focus of this discussion is a group that is already aware of local government and actively thinking about pursuing it. These are our students in public administration and public policy programs. A survey has been developed that can help us understand their attitudes, motivations, and ideas about an ideal career. Over ninety students at Wichita State University, University of Kansas, Northern Illinois University, and Arizona State University have completed the survey.


First, young professionals tend to view a "career" as a collection of experiences. Respondents were asked to identify what percentage of time they would spend in different areas of work over an ideal career. Overall, half of the respondents so far want to work in government, nonprofits, and business, and most of the rest want to mix government work with work in one of the other sectors. Even those with a strong intent to be local government managers would prefer to spend just over half of their career working for local government along with time in other levels of government, nonprofit organizations, and businesses that provide services to localities.

Second, the values of young professionals are rooted in service. Overwhelmingly the respondents agree that public service and opportunities to help others are important. Three in five agree that work should have personal meaning and that making a difference in society is more important than personal achievements. The primary emphasis for most young professionals is not pay and benefits, but advancement and security are very important as well. These are the "savvy altruists" that Cal-ICMA is trying to attract with new targeted marketing and recruiting strategies.

The Challenge to Local Governments and ICMA

There appears to be a major shift occurring in the way that young professionals view their careers and the values they seek to promote. As a consequence, they may view ICMA membership differently. Older generations were more likely to be committed to local government management as a career and to either moving across many different local governments to seek advancement or working up the ranks in a single organization until they reached upper level positions. ICMA membership was an investment to support focused career goals, and long-term membership in ICMA both provided continuity across positions and contributed to professional development that accumulated progressively over time. This stability in career patterns also provided continuity in membership in ICMA. Senior members have helped to incorporate and socialize new members.

In contrast, young professionals have a less focused interest in spending their entire career in local government and being city or county managers. They are likely to focus more on growing professionally and socially within their community than moving across communities to pursue promotions. Combining these sentiments with the preferences for variety over a career, it seems likely that more young professionals will choose to look for new positions in the same city in another sector rather than seek professional growth as a local government administrator in another jurisdiction if a move is required.

With dual-career households, coordinating job opportunities is a challenge, and the interests of children add additional complications. The increasing appeal of larger urban areas reinforces the tendency to stay put and decreases the likelihood of a move to a small community in a remote rural area. The flip side of these characteristics is that top positions in local government may increasingly be filled by professionals from the same urban area who have spent extended periods in business or nonprofit organizations. They may have been involved in city or county government affairs through partnerships but have little or no experience with local government employment.

The service orientation of young professionals provides an opportunity for attracting and retaining them in local government, but there are challenges here as well. High school and college students are much more likely to equate public service with nonprofit organizations rather than government. In part, this orientation reflects their experience. In a Brookings survey of college seniors, more than half of the college seniors have had experience with nonprofit organizations, compared with just 11 percent who had experience with either state or local government and 8 percent who had experience with the federal government.1 Internship programs and shadowing activities are valuable training activities but they are not a substitute for service activities that involve far more students.

The difference in organizational culture should also be recognized. There seems to be a persisting emphasis on "paying dues" and working your way up to the point that you can have important responsibilities. Although it is true that top local government management positions offer the "ultimate community service,"2 young professionals may feel far removed from these service contributions and not be inclined to wait around for the opportunity to finally come.

The future of the local government management profession and ICMA are integrally linked to the broad generational changes that are underway in the United States. ICMA must accept the likelihood that its membership will be less stable in the future. Reflecting the attitudes of young professionals, the tight professional job market, and the changing nature of community affairs, there will be increasing numbers of reentry and lateral-entry hires into top level positions in local government in the future. Local government must increasingly attract new employees and ICMA will seek members who have a broad commitment to community service and are likely to pursue that commitment in a variety of positions. These young professionals probably will have fluid careers and lapses in association membership.

It is important for local governments and ICMA to find ways to link commitment to service and concern for the community with attachment to the profession as a whole. It is imperative to connect the altruism of young professionals with meaningful work in local government from the beginning. Because it is less likely that young professionals will spend their career entirely in local government or that they will have professional affiliations only with ICMA, local governments and ICMA must develop partnerships with other sectors and other associations. In personnel practices and membership policies, they both must find ways to attract and retain new employees whose interests extend beyond local government, to remain connected with professionals who leave government, and to be welcoming to those who re-enter or laterally enter. Young professionals will make distinctive contributions and bring diverse perspectives to community service and the future of professional local government management.


1Paul C. Light, "In Search of Public Service" (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, Center for Public Service, June 2003), 15, The survey found that only 28 percent of the students said that working for government was "completely public service," but 58 percent saw nonprofit organizations in that way. Even among respondents who intended to work in government, 66 percent felt that nonprofits were the best place to help people (pages 7 and 12.)

2Beth Kellar, "The Ultimate Community Service," in Frank Benest, Editor, Preparing the Next Generation (Washington: ICMA, 2003), 11-19.

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