Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | Earlier this year, I celebrated five years in local government. Two days later, I worked my last day there.
This piece originally appeared on the author’s blog which you can view here. It has been lightly edited.
I’m not the first local government employee to join the Great Resignation (or Reassessment, Realignment, Repositioning, etc.) and I certainly won’t be the last. According to MissionSquare Research Institute, 52% of local government employees are considering leaving their jobs. For some, it’s an easy decision: a chance to leave toxic workplaces, recover from burnout or find better benefits or pay. For others, like me, it’s a difficult decision fueled by pandemic-induced personal evolution in response to the rapid changes in the workplace since 2020.
While I am excited to be starting my new position in the private sector, leaving local government is bittersweet. I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to learn about the industry and hope I’ve made a difference in the time I’ve served. I have been fortunate to have supportive bosses, wonderful colleagues and engage with the best residents. Our community’s future is bright and leaving at this pivotal time has not been a cavalier decision.
Like many people, I’ve spent the last two pandemic-fueled years in deep reflection, thinking about what I want out of my personal and professional lives. Like many, I felt myself putting a greater emphasis on the former than I ever had. I began to question many of the things that made up my professional identity and reflected on what tasks I enjoyed doing vs. those that just deflated me.
I changed positions within my organization in the hopes that the new role would be the ticket to make me stay. But as months passed, I had to accept that while there were many things I enjoyed about working in local government, the changes happening outside of government better aligned with what I valued.
However, I still wasn’t ready to jump the government ship. In late 2021, I began working with a career coach to explore my past professional experiences and do some heavy emotional lifting in order to be honest with myself about where I wanted to go. Early on, I’d hoped the conclusion she and I would come to was that government was the place for me. It certainly would have been easier and saved me a great deal of stress. Unfortunately, the more she prodded me with insightful questions and the more honest I was, it became undeniable that I needed to move on.
I spent many months in a job search, and I still hoped to find a municipal opportunity that offered the modern work structure and focused work duties I was seeking. None of the municipal positions advertised in my field did. They required local residency and regular in-office work; they encompassed an exhaustive list of disparate skills, screaming “burnout!” from a mile away; they offered lower salaries than the private sector and, in some cases, fewer benefits; and they didn’t speak to the fast-paced, tech-forward, impact-making work I was seeking.
The job ads for municipal roles sounded old fashioned and tiresome, not at all exciting or contemporary. Yet, as I branched out and looked at private sector roles, I found hundreds that checked my boxes.
I worked hard to stay in local government and before 2020, had planned to stay for years to come. I didn’t plan to endure a pandemic or witness the greatest changes to the workplace in a generation. So many things have changed so quickly in the past few years and ultimately, my outlook on my life and my work changed as well during this time, just as it has for so many others.
How Rapidly Will Government Work Evolve?
While reflecting on change, I’ve spoken with colleagues who have left government and believe the industry will never evolve in response to these major culture shifts. These naysayers stand firm that stagnant approaches to government work will remain in place for years to come and continue to damage the quality of service delivery and overall quality of life in our communities. I couldn’t disagree more. The question is not if government will evolve – it must, as it has no choice - but how rapidly, and the answer to that question will make all the difference.
I hope the industry will take my story and the countless others like it into consideration and fast-track the modernization of job descriptions, benefits and operations. There is value to this work, and there are exciting opportunities. But structural and cultural changes are essential, and a repositioning of the industry is vital for job seekers to consider government, particularly amidst the current avalanche of job opportunities.
In the meantime, our communities are in great hands. The people working in government right now are passionate and intelligent. They are dedicated to making their towns, cities and villages safe, clean and productive places for residents to live and work.
Innovation in government is continually increasing and technology is greatly enhancing the ability of municipal organizations to better understand and serve constituents. Elected officials are becoming increasingly vocal about the challenges and value of municipal organizations, drawing attention to the need for increased funding and greater federal support. Municipalities are working harder than ever to engage residents and build collaborative forms of governance.
While the industry at large needs to catch up to greater cultural movements, individual municipalities have pivoted with astounding speed to respond to the evolving needs of their communities during the pandemic. Government is working smarter than it ever has and has boundless potential to become an employer of choice for a new generation of public advocates.
While I have mixed feelings about leaving, government is a unique industry in that when you leave, you’re still a participant as a citizen. I’m looking forward to watching the continual transformation of government in the coming years and am confident positive change is yet to come. To all my colleagues, best wishes. The industry is yours to shape and the opportunities are limitless.
Jenny Kosek is a writer and researcher based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She formerly served as an economic development specialist for West Allis, Wisconsin.