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Inspiring Leadership: Next Generation Update - A New Opportunity

Gus Caravalho is a management assistant for the City of Buena Park and can be reached at guscaravalho@gmail.com. Craig Chavez is a management intern for Orange County Animal Care and can be reached at craigchavez@gmail.com. David Pierce is an intern for the City of Irvine and can be reached at davidpierce@gmail.com. Jason Machado, development specialist for the City of Huntington Beach, provided invaluable research assistance for this article and can be reached at jason.machado@surfcity-hb.org.

At a recent conference titled "Generation Next in the Public Workplace," sponsored by California State University, Fullerton and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), Paul Peretz, director of Fullerton’s Master’s of Public Administration (MPA) program, addressed the assembled crowd of students and professionals. "Over the past five or six years," he said, "I have been seeing more and more young people recently out of college apply to our program -- so many, in fact, that the characteristics of our MPA student population are changing."

 

Currently, CSU Fullerton’s MPA website includes this description of a typical student: "... someone working full-time in the public sector or a nonprofit organization, who has been out of school for three or four years and has decided that they want to become a manager." This could be considered the "traditional" MPA student. But if the seats in MPA classrooms are being filled with younger people, is this description still accurate?

To find out, we solicited demographic data from the 14 MPA programs in California accredited by the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration and received responses from 10: the California State Universities at Fullerton, Long Beach, Pomona, San Bernardino, Chico, Bakersfield, Los Angeles and Dominguez Hills; San Diego State University and San Francisco State University.

MPA Students Are Younger

The results show that from 2001-07, the proportion of California MPA students age 25 years and younger has increased by 53 percent, accounting for roughly a quarter of the MPA student population in 2007. In some programs, such as Fullerton and San Diego, individuals age 25 and younger made up more than a third of the students. CSU Long Beach’s increase of 78 percent was the largest (not counting CSU Bakersfield’s more than 1,000 percent increase, which is not representative of the total data). Only CSU Los Angeles and Dominguez Hills saw slightly negative trends.

Frank Benest, former city manager of Palo Alto and lead author of the ICMA publication Preparing the Next Generation, was both surprised and encouraged by these findings. He cautioned that although these trends seem positive, they do not indicate a tidy solution to the next generation crisis; that is, the ability to fill local government positions of retiring Baby Boomers. Cities still must make changes to take advantage of these favorable statistics. "These data show that internships will be an even more important hook to pull people into local government," he said. "And practitioners must make an effort to get back into MPA classrooms and give this younger cohort guidance and direction."

The importance of internships cannot be overstated. If the proportion of younger people in MPA programs is growing, then the proportion of MPA students with work experience is shrinking. This means MPA programs cannot continue to use curriculum assumptions based solely on the traditional MPA student, as a young MPA student is often just a year out of undergraduate school and lacks the significant time in a government job that’s needed to understand the MPA material from a work experience perspective. Therefore, new job preparation components need to be included in MPA classes, as a larger proportion of students are now looking for work rather than working. Furthermore, as Joseph Donabed, city manager of Hughson, said, "City managers need to take an individual under their wing and really focus on giving that person the real-world experience needed to become a public administrator."

This doesn’t have to be an overwhelming task. "I can’t fix the whole problem of preparing the next generation by myself," said Ken Pulskamp, city manager of Santa Clarita. "But I can make sure that my intern has a really positive experience."

New Ways to Develop Future Managers

Universities and their surrounding cities need to create strong partnerships where they collaborate to place their MPA students in internships. Furthermore, a strong component of an internship has to be a commitment to getting that person a job.

With this increased communication, cities have the opportunity to work with MPA programs to get their future employees trained to their specifications at a low price while they are in school. This is significant because many cities face monetary constraints. "I think the biggest issue relates to budget and our ability to afford not only internship positions, but full-time positions," said Cathy Standiford, assistant city manager of Santa Ana. While financial constraints are a reality for all cities, Benest noted that cutting intern positions -- part-time positions with no benefits, paid a modest hourly wage -- doesn’t save very much money compared to the overall city budget.

Certainly, most MPA students are still traditional, age 26 years or older. But given the trend toward younger students in MPA programs, this is an excellent opportunity for universities and cities to take action and keep these clearly interested young people in local government.