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Advancing Professional Excellence in Preparation of the Public University Enrollment Cliff

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Elaine Ahumada
May 12, 2023

Public administrators must possess strong leadership skills that involve specialization, a desire to be relational and a need to be a critical thinker. Brent Rubin references five key competencies of public administrators that include: 1) Analytic competencies, 2) Personal competencies, 3) Communication competencies, 4) Organizational competencies; and 5) Positional competencies. Often, leaders who have grown within an organization may have deep knowledge of the various roles and responsibilities of those they manage and lead. However, formal academic training and professional development are advantageous for all five of Rubin’s competencies.

Undergraduate enrollments continue to decline at public institutions and expect an even more drastic drop in 2025 among traditional-aged students 18-24. Public institutions need to prepare for the shifting landscape of impending enrollment challenges by exploring new ways to recruit and engage traditional-aged, degree-completing adults and graduate students who are planning to be public sector practitioners.

The public sector deems Master of Public Administration (MPA) and Master of Public Policy (MPP) degrees as terminal degrees yet a vast majority of positions in the public sector do not require an undergraduate degree. The sector is to Advance Professional Excellence: Strengthen personal capabilities to act competently and ethically and encourage the professional development of others per ASPA’s code 8. In that case, there must be a concerted effort to operationalize the opportunity for such development more directly and tangibly by raising awareness about the importance of important skills.

Formal academic education and training by design can address the competencies that Rubin mentions. For example, analytic competencies in math or statistics courses aid in data interpretation and cost-benefit analysis related to bureaucratic policymaking decisions. Personal competencies explored in sociology, psychology and organizational behavior courses are invaluable in leading and mentoring others and valuable in social emotional intelligence and self-reflection as a responsible leader. English writing courses enhance communication competencies. Oral presentations, research management and literature reviews aid in grant writing, interpersonal office protocols and formal written and oral reports. These skills can make all the difference when fostering public trust and improving civic engagement. Organizational competencies within courses involving human resource management, legal, ethical and managerial best practices are imperative in every role within the public sector. Positional competencies directly align with the specific discipline of study and how to apply information to a specific public arena. The nuances of public sector operations as one studies a theory to practice are illuminated when comprehensive knowledge of organizational dynamics has labels and meaning for organizational life’s observational and experiential phenomenon.

As the 21st-century workplace changes with rapid automation within the private sector, entry-level positions are waning. Workers with little to no formal academic education may be considering roles within the public sector as automation and advanced technologies replace the entry-level positions in the private sector. Drucker’s original definition of the knowledge worker coined in 1959 speaks of workers requiring the ability to apply theoretical and analytical knowledge to develop products and services. The concept of the knowledge worker is still relevant today and is now updated to include the context of information technology roles. As the public sector will eventually move towards more efficiencies and adopt automation, it becomes imperative that it get ahead of the eventual requirements for transforming the sector to this new paradigm.

Access to the university and college classroom is possible for those who work full-time and manage other responsibilities. Public educators are employing remote teaching, interactive technologies and flexible scheduling and delivery, which can be effectively employed while still realizing consistent student learning outcomes. Innovative practices of invested educators who embrace online delivery modalities, hybrid offerings and intentionally meet the needs of students who experience childcare, health and work challenges are creating the paradigms necessary in today’s education landscape. These practices will be come even more necessary in 2025 and beyond. While public institutions are responding to the call to action to implement more diverse, equitable and inclusive learning environments, public educators within higher education must be cognizant of how this translates into the specific practitioner-oriented undergraduate and graduate degrees that are most appropriate for the advancement of those working in the public sector. To continue the advancement of a competent, ethical and prepared sector for tomorrow, it will require the triangulated efforts of willing educators, administrators and public higher education institutions. Educators adapting to new horizons of curriculum delivery, public administrators willing to question their academic preparation for the future and educational institutions willing to invest in programming are required to prepare for a more efficient and effective public sector workforce that technically oversees and serves all in society. Ultimately, the public sector serves everyone in every sector as government practitioners impact every realm in the regulatory affairs of all sectors. As we prepare for tomorrow’s challenges, formal academic education and training is an investment that will have a return for all.

Author: Elaine Ahumada, DPA – Dr. Elaine Ahumada has taught Public Administration and Public Policy courses over the past twenty years. She is the Director of the Doctoral Program in Public Administration at California Baptist University. She has extensive practitioner experience in non-profit consulting and serving on boards for regional non-profits in Southern California.

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