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Big hiring gap expected as generation of experienced government workers retires

Like his friends, Wilson Hooper drives around Charlotte, N.C., and marvels at the change sweeping the area. The city is booming, filled with recent college graduates like himself, and it seems there's new construction at every corner.

Unlike his friends, Hooper knows the history of each fresh office park or sparkling housing complex going up along the road. His job in the city manager’s office depends on it. And that knowledge makes him a rare asset in a profession racing against a demographic clock.

"You don't get to jaunt up the steps of the Capitol or the Supreme Court like in the movies, and you don't get to meet the president or the people on the national news every day," Hooper said.

"Every so often you get a broad policy initiative, but most of the things you're doing, like buying and purchasing and signing for grants and things like that, is day-to-day stuff that's just as necessary."

Jobs and careers in municipal government and city planning haven't always been considered a hot ticket by young people, but the baby boom generation of public servants that has long dominated the field is getting ready to retire, and communities and professional organizations are seeking out new talent.

“It's been called an impending tsunami,” said Michele Frisby, a spokeswoman for the International City/County Management Association.

Frisby's job is to worry about how to find new workers quickly enough to prevent priceless institutional know-how from disappearing as part of what she calls “a huge bubble moving through the work force.”

In 1971, according to Frisby, 26 percent of the association's managers were younger than 30, and only 8 percent were older than 50. By 2006, those ratios had more than flipped. Only 1 percent were 30 or under, and 59 percent were older than 50.

Qualified replacements are simply hard to find, and hard to keep. Christopher Brady was recently named the city manager of Mesa, Ariz., only after his previous employers in San Antonio, Texas, considered launching a bidding war for his services. In Murrieta, Calif., Ron Bradley, 67, had to come out of retirement to organize the search for his successor.

In 1977, President Carter signed an executive order establishing the prestigious Presidential Management Fellows program, a two-year paid position designed to attract to federal service outstanding men and women from a variety of academic disciplines.

Eight years before that, the New York City Urban Fellows Program was founded, assigning recent college graduates to a nine-month crash course in municipal government and urban management. Fellows are farmed out to work in various city agencies and meet regularly with high-level officials to get an overall picture of the city's workings.

“I would say the trend is recent college graduates are more deciding to work for one or two or three years initially right after the fellowship, because our fellows are young,” said Barbara Simmons, the program's director. “They go off to grad school, come back, go off to other governments somewhere. But yes, I would say that there's a growing interest in current fellows remaining in city governments.”

Hannah Roth, a recent Barnard College graduate and a native of Amherst, Mass., works for the New York Parks Department in its Deputy Commissioner's Office of Management and Budget. With her fellowship set to expire soon, she is applying to several other city agencies for full-time work.

“I certainly never thought about working in government; wouldn't have applied for any other government job right out of college,” Roth said. “I had a different idea of public service, and the Urban Fellows Program appealed to me because it allowed me to learn about a sector I didn't know a lot about. You interact with government all the time, but you don't really understand how it works.”

Many other cities, including Miami and Providence, R.I., offer similar summer programs through their respective mayor's offices.

Since 2003, Frisby’s group has paired new employees with more experienced managers who serve as mentors to attract more recruits. The California branch of the association sponsored an advertising campaign aimed at college students with the slogan, “Careers in Local Government, Your World Starts Here.”

“It's very simple,” Frisby said. “Get 'em while they're young.”

This year, the group's Local Government Management Fellowship placed 20 post-graduate students into yearlong posts across the country, sometimes in multiple communities that split the cost of hosting a young professional.

Hooper applied to the program after earning a master's degree in public administration from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He works in the City of Charlotte Manager's Office, rotating between departments and sampling each aspect of a staff that manages 6,000 employees and an annual budget of $1.5 billion.

He plans to stay in Charlotte if they'll keep him, which is probably the wrong way to look at things.

"If you're interested in a job, get your MPA, because it's going to be a wide-open field," Frisby said.

E-mail: baf2113@columbia.edu