Wanted: young talent to take reins of city

Strategy: A Baltimore internship program aims to draw the best and brightest to municipal jobs.

August 23, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Thomas J. D'Alesandro III had his pick in 1967 when, as the newly elected mayor of Baltimore, he went looking for skilled professionals to serve in his administration.

It was a different story three decades later when D'Alesandro helped seek prospects for another new mayor, Martin O'Malley. He approached a half-dozen people. Every one took a pass.

"A lot of people feel that local government is the employment of last resort," D'Alesandro said. "I've been on a lot of search committees and I know a lot of people who wouldn't even entertain the idea."

City government work can be a tough sell these days, experts say, despite the renewed interest in public service sparked by the attacks Sept. 11. Even as job applications flood into federal agencies, municipalities struggle to attract and retain top talent.

Baltimore's response to that problem has been a new, privately funded internship program that drew 17 students from elite universities and public policy schools to City Hall for 10 weeks this summer.

It will be no easy trick to make municipalities the dream destination of many young professionals, experts say. The percentage of spring graduates from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who went to work for cities and towns was 3.1 percent, a slight increase from 2.7 percent a year earlier. The share who took federal jobs soared to 58 percent after Sept. 11, up from 31 percent the year before.

"For the highfliers, local government is considered a comedown," said Paul C. Light, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of The New Public Service. "It's kind of considered a place you go if you don't have any other options. ... You got to recruit like a dog to get people."

But supporters of Baltimore's Mayoral Fellowship program say it has paid off. Two of the interns -- the only ones who had completed their studies -- have taken jobs with the city. A third, who intends to work full time while completing her master's at Morgan State University, has applied for a post.

A fourth considered taking a leave of absence from her Kennedy School studies so she could continue working on a city plan to demolish 5,000 vacant homes. Sharifa Anderson, 24, of Boston decided to return to school but hopes to make a continued contribution to Project 5000 by analyzing it in her senior thesis, called a policy analysis exercise.

"We are strongly of the view that people make a difference, and the city government needs access to some of the best people that are coming out of college and graduate schools," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, which jointly funded the $100,000 program with The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

City Hall internships were offered for five years in the 1980s under Mayor William Donald Schaefer. That program was open only to undergraduate students, who were not paid.

The program launched this summer involved 11 graduate students, who were paid $4,500, and six undergraduates, who earned $3,500.

Participants completed a variety of projects for city agencies, from designing a recycling plan for the 38 tons of trash generated by the annual Artscape festival to crafting public service campaigns advising low- and moderate-income residents about certain tax breaks.

Stacey-Ann Taylor, 25, who has a law degree from Duke University, said she had considered working for federal, state or municipal government while in school. But spending the summer as an assistant to Baltimore's acting parks director won her over to city work. She recalled finding a football program for a local boy, dispatching crews to clean city parks and seeing that her boss' orders were followed.

"I love being on the city level," said Taylor, who grew up on Long Island and took a full-time job as the director's special assistant. "I definitely get to see an impact on people's lives fairly quickly."

Alex Iliff, 22, who earned his bachelor's degree in history from Princeton, spent the summer as an intern for the Police Department. He has accepted a full-time job with the department, coordinating the creation of a database for analyzing officers' job performance.

"There's sort of an atmosphere over there that makes people want to do things, and that made me want to come back and see where I can fit in," said Iliff, who grew up in Arnold. "They actually give you the idea that you can contribute."

Competition elsewhere

Although top city officials believe they have solid veteran workers, many say it has become harder in recent decades -- even when the economy is sluggish -- to attract and retain younger employees because of better-paying business and nonprofit opportunities. Also, job-hopping has become more common.

"In today's world, younger people are not opting for this kind of career," said Darrell D. Friedman, president of The Associated. "I would not say we were always attracting the best and the brightest."

When D'Alesandro took office, he inherited a skilled City Hall staff that had been in place for decades.

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