Are you passionate about serving your community? Match your skills and strengths to a career in public service and find out what it takes to get started.
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Those interested in a career in public service are usually fueled by a strong desire to serve their communities, but what exactly does a career in public service consist of besides serving others? The public service field is broad and encompasses an array of different occupations, so having a full understanding of the options available is crucial before starting down the educational path to your chosen career. Like any field, getting started is often the hardest part, so we’ve created the following guide to help students, young professionals, people who want to change careers, and anyone else considering a public service career to enter the industry as prepared as possible. Discover the different career paths, learn about employment opportunities and volunteer work and get insight into the public service sector from seasoned professionals.
The desire to help others is a very good reason to consider a career in public, but it’s only a start. Public service is a surprisingly broad field, encompassing a wide variety of jobs in government, nonprofits, education, and non-government organizations referred to as NGOs. It’s necessary to look beyond your desire to help others to find the specific area of public service that best suits your unique needs, interests, and strengths. The questions below are designed to help you find where you best fit in the world of public service.
Where do your strengths lie?
Being a successful public service professional requires a range of important practical skills that are used on the job daily. Which skills are most important will depend on the specific area of public service you’re interested in. Here’s a list of some of the most common skills public servants need, along with the types of jobs they’re particularly useful in.
Communication skills, both verbal and written, are important in practically any job, but public servants must be able to communicate to a variety of people from superiors and coworkers to clients and patients from all walks of life. Strong communication skills build strong relationships, and strong relationships are fundamental to success in public service.
Who needs it: Nearly all public service professionals, but especially social workers, police officers, teachers, and those working in patient-facing public health roles.
Collaborative leadership refers to leadership of processes rather than leadership of people or groups. Collaborative leaders understand that in many environments, the best way to address challenges is not to start with a policy and direct others to follow it, but rather to include others in the policy-making process. This is particularly useful in public service settings where subordinates are often the best source of practical solutions to real-life problems.
Who needs it: Government administration positions such as city planners and managers, public education administrators and principals, community-focused positions such as social workers and employment counselors, and public health workers.
Empathy refers to the awareness of and sensitivity to the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of others. You simply need to be aware of and understand the feelings and experiences of others so you can better serve them. This is crucial to many public service jobs since the central purpose of those jobs is to help others.
Who needs it: Any public service professional who deals directly with the public. Examples include police officers, health care workers and EMTs, social workers, teachers, and counselors.
Success in any position requires the trust of others, whether it’s coworkers, your superiors, or patients and clients. Honesty is particularly important in positions that require in-home care where employees are given access to a patient’s personal space and belongings. Those who work within criminal justice should also be held to the highest standard when it comes to honesty.
Who needs it: Anyone in public service, but particularly those working in healthcare and criminal justice.
Public servants are often caught between two conflicting worlds. One of strict regulation and bureaucracy, and another of real-world problems and the constantly-changing needs of the public-at-large. Such an environment calls for thoughts and actions that can bridge both worlds through creativity and flexibility.
Who needs it: Administration, human relations, and office management personnel.
Public service professionals are often called upon to make difficult decisions and making the right decisions requires observation, experience, objectivity, reason, and the ability to think critically.
Who needs it: Those that must make quick and accurate decisions under pressure, including police officers, fire fighters, healthcare workers, EMTs, emergency managers, and crisis-line counselors.
Public service professionals are often exposed to difficult circumstances faced by clients in crisis. It’s easy to get frustrated and discouraged, especially when solutions to problems aren’t always simple or quick. Public servants must be able to overcome their frustrations to focus on the slow and steady work that needs to get done.
Who needs it: Public servants who deal directly with people in need, including social workers, substance abuse counselors, school guidance counselors, homeless shelter managers, and food bank workers.
As with many government organizations, public service agencies are often administered by political appointees, either directly or indirectly. That’s why it’s good to have a strong understanding of the hierarchy and political climate both within and immediately surrounding your agency. In short, you don’t have to be a politician, you just need to able to get along with them.
Who needs it: Everyone working for a public agency, but especially those with roles in administration and management.
What are public service jobs?
Those who are interested in a public service career should be familiar with the major areas that make up the public sector. Understating these areas can help you decide what work environment and path is right for you.
Probably the single broadest public service category, the public safety sector includes careers on all levels of government in areas such as criminal justice, emergency and non-emergency medical, homeland security, and emergency management for both natural and man-made disasters.
Jobs in public safety are often physically demanding, dangerous, and even life-threatening. Individuals who enjoy being “on the street” in direct contact with the public may find public safety work a good career choice.
This area includes public sector jobs with federal, state, and local forestry and conservation agencies as forest and park rangers, environmental scientists, and natural resource managers. Jobs in the natural resource field are great for those who enjoy working out-of-doors.
Public Administration and Social Welfare
Examples of public administration careers include positions in public works and government operations management (city planning and maintenance, employment services, and human relations) and non-safety related jobs (librarians, DMV officers, etc.) Social welfare positions include social workers, employment counselors, substance abuse and mental health workers, financial case workers, and others. Some positions require time spent “in the field”, but for the most part, professionals in this category spend their working hours indoors in office settings. A good choice for service-minded people not interested in the physical demands and dangers associated with public safety employment.
This area of the public service field includes teaching, counseling, and administrative positions at public elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as community colleges, vocational schools, and state colleges and universities. Some people include private education institutions in this category. A good choice for individuals interested in making a positive difference in the lives of children, young adults, and adult learners.