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A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.
By Paula Bechtler
Many students find that the only task more daunting than surviving graduate school is navigating the myriad career choices that are sure to follow. Writing research papers and studying for exams can suddenly appear to be a tough yet predictable means by which we can postpone the inevitable encounter with our professional fork-in-the-road. In order to alleviate my own apprehension, and hopefully share such relief with my fellow students, I sought out a series of conversations with practicing public administration professionals regarding their career paths, lessons they have learned and their advice for the next generation of government and nonprofit professionals.
My first conversation was with Karen Hampton, Director of Human Resources at the Georgia Department of Economic Development. Hampton is a graduate of the University of Georgia’s (UGA) Masters in Public Administration program. She has more than 25 years of experience as a human resources professional in various state government agencies. Following the completion of her MPA degree, Hampton found herself in an opportune spot when the state transitioned to an at-will employment system, her boss retired and a new agency commissioner took over—all within a year’s time. Using those events to her advantage, Hampton leveraged herself into a management position. Based on her experience as a public administrator and her insider knowledge of state human resources practices, I picked up on five intriguing themes of public administration career development.
Choose use your graduate school courses wisely.
Hampton’s work experience, both prior to and during her time in graduate school, centered on human resources. Although UGA offered a human resources (HR) concentration within its MPA program, she chose to focus her studies in other subject areas in order to diversify her knowledge portfolio. “I already had a good grasp of HR, so I wanted a better understanding of other disciplines,” she said. She also felt like a broader understanding of the public administration field would help her move to the executive level more easily once she completed her studies.
Identify a strong mentor.
When you’ve got your eye on the next rung of the ladder, it helps to have an ally above you, lending a hand when needed. Hampton found such an ally in her supervisor at the Georgia State Merit System of Personnel Administration. “She recognized my potential and taught me more than what I needed to know at my current level, including the importance of confidentiality. People have to know that if they speak to me, it’s not going anywhere,” she said. Hampton was taught not only how to perform her supervisor’s job, but also the reasoning that went into making critical decisions. This brand of leadership developed Hampton’s career and ensured stability for the agency in the event of turnover or attrition.
Opt for positions in a new or small organization.
After 13 years with the Merit System office, Hampton began to look for new career opportunities. She noticed a job listing at an agency that was less than 5 years old. This particular agency was formed by merging employees of different agencies and had been operating in a decentralized fashion, with the employees still using processes and procedures established by the former agencies. After interviewing for the position, she learned that her new boss wanted to see the group form new standards and operate as a cohesive unit. “It seemed like an organizational development kind of job and that interested me,” Hampton said. This move also allowed her to work as a generalist, taking on broader responsibilities than the transactional duties that formerly defined human resources positions. Developing a larger skill not only increased her value to that agency, but it also made her more attractive to future employers.
Be open to unexpected or temporary job opportunities.
Once Hampton successfully navigated the agency into the new organizational structure that her boss was looking for, she went a step further and completed some process improvement activities before considering her next move. Because the agency had been successful in improving processes and procedures, Hampton was invited to serve on the Governor’s Customer Service Initiative on a full-time basis as a loaned executive. During that time, she served on a team that shared and borrowed best practices with other public servants to improve customer service in other state agencies. She worked with loaned executives from other agencies and private firms, including one from the Georgia Power Corporation. “I think the state of Georgia has a good relationship with a lot of corporate citizens,” she commented. Those partnerships, which are mutually beneficial to the state and private corporations, can also give state employees another tool to utilize as they further their careers through networking.
Always consider the client.
I concluded by asking Hampton if she had any parting advice for current MPA students. Her first response was to remind us that making professional connections is more important now than ever, given the fact that our state, for example, now operates more like a private business when it comes to job recruitment. Hampton said it’s all about who you know these days, as opposed to ages past when candidates and hiring managers had to adhere to a confusing maze of regulations. However, after our interview had concluded, I received an email from her with a few more parting words for those who are about to make the big leap from the classroom to the office:
“Once you find your career path, always remember that there is a customer somewhere in the mix, either internal or external, and if you approach work with a perspective of helping the customer get what they need (within the rules) you will go a long way. Employees who get things done are the ones who get ahead, not the ones who are rule-bound and make people wait or tell them no altogether. There is almost always a way to get things done within the rules, even if it requires going up the ladder to get the rules changed!”
Author: Paula Bechtler is an MPA student at Kennesaw State University. She can be reached at [email protected].