By Shelly Gehshan, MPP, ACC
No matter how you feel about the priorities of president Donald Trump, it’s clear the new administration will bring enormous changes that will affect career options for public policy graduates. Here are a few thoughts from a policy professional turned career coach to frame your thinking.
Despite a federal hiring freeze, there will be opportunities
On January 23, 2017, President Trump issued a 90-day hiring freeze to shrink the size of the federal workforce. His order included numerous exemptions: the military, public health service, the NASA Commissioned Officer Corps, postal service, non-career positions within the Senior Executive Service, national intelligence staff and seasonal workers. Also exempted are internal career ladder promotions and any position an agency head deems necessary for national security or public safety.
Longer term plans have not been announced, but one transition team member recommended that the Environmental Protection Agency be shrunk by two-thirds to achieve policy, not economic, goals. In all, federal jobs for policy graduates may be scarcer for a few years. During previous freezes, one of the only ways to enter federal service was through the competitive Presidential Management Fellows program, and that program is exempted from this freeze too.
Opportunities to work on federal programs won’t disappear
President Trump has promised a build-up in customs, immigration and border control, as well as the Department of Veterans Affairs. Historically, a hiring freeze for federal employees has caused the number of federal contractors to swell. Currently, there are roughly 2 million federal employees, but 5 to 7 million contractors. If you want to work on federal priorities, find companies that have successfully bid on federal contracts.
Think broadly about the impact you want to make
Most people seek public policy degrees because they want to make a difference, often in a particular policy area. While federal service is one option to make an impact, there are many others. Associations, advocacy groups, think tanks, unions, consulting firms, and foundations all value and hire people with policy skills. Not choosing the federal government now doesn’t preclude that option in the future. Many people move in and out of government service in their careers. In fact, most political appointees come from outside government.
Think state and local
Governments of all levels need and hire people with policy expertise. States have a larger role on some issues—such as education, pensions, criminal justice, health insurance and the health workforce—than does the federal government. Local governments have a larger role on land use, transportation, housing, policing, and delivery of services. Historically, when progress stalls at the federal level, leadership on issues shifts from federal to state governments. Serving at the state and local level may be a better way to make a contribution. It also helps people gain a real-world perspective that can be used at the national level. The happiest professionals are those who can show up at work as who they really are, working on issues they are passionate about, with people they respect, in an organization where they can grow their knowledge and skills.
Stick to your guns—and your skills
The biggest challenge facing policy professionals may be operating in a “post-truth environment,” when many national figures, including President Trump and members of his staff, assert that anything they say is true (even when demonstrably false) if enough people believe it. The motto of my alma mater, the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, is “speaking truth to power.” But what do policy graduates do if elected and appointed officials aren’t listening? If facts don’t matter, the policy world is turned upside down and real progress isn’t possible. While this is a much bigger conversation, facts are still the currency used by government agencies, journalists, advocates, and most of the public. The communication and organizational skills that policy graduates learn will be more important than ever to have an impact in this environment. Your career choices hinge on this question: where can you practice your craft in a way that honors your values and ethics, and advances your priorities?
Take the long view
A wise DC-based policy veteran recently said “the good times are never as good as they seem and the bad times are never as bad as they seem.” Others have pointed out that the federal government is an ocean liner, not a motorboat. Millions of people, not just policy graduates, are reflecting on the new reality and deciding where they can make a difference in their own lives and careers. One question I ask clients is “what has been the organizing theme of your life?” It’s useful to look back and see if you’ve been focused on what really matters. But it’s even more instructive to fast forward and imagine yourself at retirement. Think about what you would most want to have accomplished. Choosing the change you want to see in the world over the long term, and building your career around it, is more important than the impact of any single election.
Shelly Gehshan, MPP, ACC
An earlier version of this blog was originally published December 13, 2016 on gehshangroup.com. Shelly Gehshan is a career and executive coach for mission-driven professionals and nonprofit leaders. She currently serves as chair of the Goldman School Alumni Association board of directors.