Career Management in the 21st Century

ARTICLE | Mar 23, 2015

The convergence of workforce trends impacting the landscape for public sector employment is unprecedented.  The five major workforce trends that affect public sector organizations include:

  1. The accelerated rate of public-sector retirements creating what is referred to as the “Silver Tsunami.”  There are those who dispute this occurrence, but trends indicate otherwise with the number of public sector retirements being unaffected by the recent economic downturn.
  2. The lingering effects of the Great Recession on budgets allocated for salaries and wages, which have grown incrementally at most. 
  3. According to recent research conducted of graduating college seniors, government received the most votes of their top three preferred industries for starting their careers. 
  4. There is an uptick in state and local government hiring.

The disruption to the historical arrangement between employer and employee often referred to as “Life Time Employment” in which the employer provides stable employment, attractive benefits, and wages in exchange for an employee’s effort and tenure.  The impact of this trend has been experienced most acutely in the public sector as it concerns attracting and retaining top performers. 

What do these trends mean for leaders of cities and towns who want to build their 21st-century workforce? Old models must be discarded in favor of progressive and practical strategies and tools to attract, retain, and optimize talent — especially as it relates to establishing a robust career management program for employees.  It is critical to acknowledge that a number after a job title, for instance, Accountant II or Maintenance Worker 4, does not a career step make, but is more often a compensation level. 

Career development is not simply accumulating years of service or increasing one’s technical proficiency, both of which are assumptions often made by the public sector in making decisions about employee advancement.  The dimension receiving increasing attention for career advancement is the development of non-technical skills.  These are often referred to as “soft” skills, when in fact they are the hardest skills for employees to acquire, and are essential to succeeding in supervisory and management positions.

Moreover, the concept of a career is transitioning from the traditional ladder of upward mobility, to more of a lattice where employees move in different directions.  Today’s employees might move up, sideways, or both — gaining essential skills and experiences to keep pace in today’s quickly changing workplace. 

Openings for upward mobility are just part of the equation for retaining your top performers.  Many cities and towns have limited ability to promote employees due to a small workforce and infrequent job openings.  Creating and implementing a forward-looking career management strategy for your city or town is essential to keeping your top performers.  The components of this strategy might include:

  • Career Resource Center – Institute a career counseling process for employees who are interested in advancement.  Career counseling can help employees determine which skills to develop to prepare for future promotional opportunities.  Career counseling might include a competency assessment and employee development plan with recommended training or courses.  In addition, this could be a precursor to an in-depth career path that would outline steps and competencies required for supervisory or management positions. 

Small cities can partner with another city to co-create a Career Resource Center, or consult with the appropriate state government agency for counsel and available resources.   

  • Learning Program – If not already in place, develop a series of learning
    courses that equip employees with the requisite leadership, management, and supervisory skills.  Incorporate traditional topics such as managing employee feedback, business writing, communication skills, and delegation, as well as emerging topics like leading change, innovation, and performance management.
  • Mentoring – Establish a pool of employees who are willing to share their knowledge with others.  A mentoring program is an easy and inexpensive way to effectively transfer tacit knowledge about city operations from senior to junior employees, as well as support employees who want to further their knowledge and skills for career advancement. 
  • Growth – Your employees will position themselves for future opportunities not just by learning new skills and actively engaging in a mentoring partnership, but also by participating in a series of targeted employee development activities.  For instance, rotating job assignments, “acting” roles, and shadowing are attractive to top performers who want to stretch themselves.

Implementing these four components of a career management program will allow your employees to create a career path from any starting point.  They can discover qualities about themselves, develop skills, find a mentor, and tackle new assignments.

Leaders who are intentional about ensuring the delivery of high-quality public services for their citizens will pay attention to workforce trends, and target their city’s time, money, and effort in establishing a career management program for employees. 

Patrick Ibarra, a former city manager, owns and operates a change and organizational effectiveness consulting practice, The Mejorando Group (, and is an expert on optimizing the performance of public sector organizations.  Ibarra can be reached by phone at (925) 518-0187, or email at

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