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Preparing New Public Servants for a MultiSector Career

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

By Bianca Easterly
July 31, 2015

In an era of looming government shutdowns, insolvent pension systems and a slowly improving public job market, interest in public affairs education continues to flourish. According to the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators, 2014, between 2000 and 2011, political science, public administration and psychology were the only fields in the social sciences that experienced considerable growth in graduate enrollment. Compared with other well-known professional degrees of similar status such as the MBA, JD and M.D., which concentrate on a specific topic (business, law, medicine, respectively), the interdisciplinary nature of the MPA/MPP curriculum prepares its holders to be generalists with the option to follow thousands of different career paths.

Students attracted to public administration or public policy programs understand how quickly the economic environment changes and are increasingly choosing MPA/MPP degrees to give its holders the freedom to apply their newfound management, budgeting and policy analysis skills across all career sectors. Today’s MPA/MPP graduates represent a burgeoning core of Americans who are passionate about serving the public and doing work that is challenging and intrinsically rewarding.

Experienced professionals entering MPA/MPP programs typically begin their graduate education already well aware of the skills needed for advancement (e.g., management, leadership) and choose their elective courses accordingly. In contrast, recent college graduates without professional experience may not be as adept at identifying the skills needed to be competitive in today’s job market. In a sector that expects its applicants to communicate their competencies, wading through the federal, state and local level hiring process can be so time-consuming, cumbersome and confusing that many applicants abandon their quest for government work and pursue positions in other sectors.

In fact, according to the Office of Personnel Management, the percentage and number of full-time permanent federal civilian employees younger than 30 years old hit an 8-year low in 2013. Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, an organization that strives to encourage a new generation to pursue government work, argues that the decline in younger government employees is highly problematic for the present and future of our government. “This is the most important organization we have,” says Stier. “If we’re not treating the talent right, it’s failing our talent and failing our country.”

As we close out another graduation season and a new batch of eager MPA/MPP graduates enter the job market perhaps for the first time, how can the MPA curriculum help better prepare students for a changing public sector?

One solution is to become more adaptable. Recognizing the delays involved in securing government work, new professionals seeking public service positions have already discovered that government employment is not the only path toward serving the public and programs. Public-private partnerships, for example, have contributed to the blurring of lines among the roles of government, private firms and nonprofits and are redefining traditional methods of public administration in areas such as transportation, infrastructure, education and public health.

Programs can follow new professionals’ lead by teaching courses that will expose students to the complexities of utilizing the private sector to solve public problems. A number of MPA/MPP programs, including those at American University, Cornell University and the London School of Economic and Political Science, offer courses in public-private partnerships. In the past, programs such as the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government and Harvard University’s Kennedy School have helped students learn more about the topic by offering public-private partnership study groups that regularly feature guest speakers.

Course selection that emphasizes competencies can also help students become more comfortable identifying and articulating the knowledge, skills, abilities and other characteristics developed during their graduate studies. Program advisors can be instrumental in assisting students in designing degree plans that center around students’ professional skills development so that students are better prepared for the job market. While it can be difficult for students without previous professional work experience to know exactly what they want to do when they enter MPA/MPP programs, “[they] may still have a sense of the sectors in which they will spend a preponderance of their work years,” says Mark Henderson and Carol Chetkovich, in a Journal of Public Affairs Education article titled “Sectors and Skills: Career Trajectories and Training Needs of MPP Students.”

“Those who expect to work both in nonprofits and public serving for-profits may want to build more research skills,” say Henderson and Chetkovich, “whereas those planning a combination of government and strictly private for-profit work may want to include training in negotiations, for example.” This approach enables workforce preparedness to guide the educational process instead of the other way around.

Recent trends in graduate enrollment in MPA/MPP programs strongly suggest that students recognize the advantages that comes with earning this particular professional degree. Still, the true value of an MPA/MPP degree may largely depend on the ease and speed in which new professionals secure positions that enable them to serve the public and, eventually, their ability to adapt to the changing nature of the public sector in order to remain marketable across sectors throughout their career.

Author: Bianca Easterly, Ph.D., MPA is an assistant professor in the department of political science at Lamar University. Dr. Easterly teaches undergraduate political science courses and graduate seminars in the master of public administration program. She can be reached at [email protected].

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