Public Workforce

From Intern to Top Officer

In 2005, Tim Abraham started as an intern in West Virginia government. Five years later, he is now a top-level official.
by | April 14, 2010

Heather Kerrigan

Heather Kerrigan is a GOVERNING contributor. She pens the monthly Public Workforce column and contributes to the print magazine.

When I ask Public Workforce readers what topics the newsletter should focus on in the future, a frequent answer involves the emerging public workforce -- how to recruit graduates and how to retain them. The next few editions of the Public Workforce newsletter will focus on young leaders pursuing careers in the public realm.

This month, I spoke to Tim Abraham, chief operating officer and chief performance officer in West Virginia's Office of the Cabinet Secretary. His career in public service started five years ago as an intern with the Governor's Internship Program in the cabinet secretary's office. Abraham continued working there during college breaks and was hired full-time in 2007. Prior to his current role, he served as a business manager and executive assistant to the secretary. Abraham relayed his experience in government thus far via phone interview and e-mails. His edited answers appear below.

What first attracted you to a career in government?

It was the opportunity to positively impact the state. In West Virginia, we have a strong bond to our state -- we share a sense of pride. Once I got my foot in the door, it was seeing the people I was working for, mainly Cabinet Secretary Robert Ferguson and Governor Joe Manchin. It was great to see those leaders have such faith in young leaders in building tomorrow's West Virginia. They've done a great job of attracting young professionals, and actually given us an opportunity to succeed.

Had you planned on this career path in college?

A career in government was one of my options. I was a political science major and that was what really drew me to the internship opportunity. And it proceeded from there. Seeing the people I was working for really cemented my decision.

How did you learn about the Governor's Internship Program?

[Program officials] reached out across the state, through the Division of Personnel. What I found was a real selling point was that not only do you get the experience, but the pay was very competitive. My brother was in the program -- that's how I initially heard about it. But the state does a great job of pushing the information out, and the internship provides a great opportunity to learn from the best in government.

What has kept you in government for the past few years?

Many things -- first, at the level I'm in, [I get] to really work with key decisionmakers in this state to make a positive difference. Feeling that sense of making a difference, and having those key decisionmakers accept you and involve you was really important. It's great to begin your career this way. The level of salary and benefits is very comparable to the private sector. But it really comes down to the people letting me use my skills and abilities to build a better state for us all.

How have you been able to advance so quickly in the Office of the Cabinet Secretary?

I have been afforded many opportunities within this administration to expand my knowledge, skills, and abilities in many diverse areas. Experience is the greatest teacher, and I realize that I have much more to learn. Keeping this perspective allows me to be appreciative of both the opportunities afforded to me and the positive work environment that I am a part of, while also striving continually to achieve higher levels. It is my desire to always be growing both personally and professionally, and right now that means embracing new ideas and concepts to serve the state taxpayers. [I've advanced because] I've been confident in my skills and abilities, while recognizing I have much more to learn. To that end, I take advantage of the experiences afforded to me to grow. ... I think this simple phrase sums up how I've been fortunate enough to move up quickly: a humble confidence.

Do you encounter any older employees that aren't eager to work with younger employees?

I think that each generation brings its own viewpoint to their life, whether it be in the workplace or on public policy issues. All the ones I've worked for (and those in the legislative branch as well) ... everyone respects the younger generation and makes us feel like we are being listened to.

Does the state offer any training to help you improve your skills?

The state division of personnel offers a ton of classes regarding aspects of state government, business acumen, etc. And the state has the ability to reimburse employees such as myself and other young leaders for educational expenses if we go back to get a masters degree, or other further education. As long as we work for the state for a certain amount of time after receiving the degree, we get the money back. In May, I'll receive my master of business administration degree.

What would attract a larger number of young leaders to a government career?

I think just getting the word out about the opportunities that exist in government. Young leaders should share the good stories about the people we work for and then really communicate how we're making positive changes where we are. One example I think that can hit home is Governor Manchin's Responsible Government program -- using those initiatives as a tool to show how government directly impacts young professionals, makes positive change and creates that sense of pride to join in the effort.

Do you plan to spend most of your life working in the public sector?

I would like to remain involved with the public sector. I think right now one of my goals is to get a doctorate. But I'd like to do that in an area that impacts state government (like performance budgeting), bring that to the public sector and continue to build on the public momentum of what the governor has done. I've learned not to try to predict what the future holds, but I'd say I'll probably be involved for the majority of my career.

What can your colleagues to do to keep you in government?

As long as the key leaders have a genuine desire to affect positive change in West Virginia, that's what would drive me to stay here and continue to be intimately involved in the process of government. ... I want to grow both personally and professionally. Experience is the greatest teacher, and I'm learning from those with great experience who are trying to affect positive change. As my titles have changed, I've been recognized for my hard work. I get that opportunity to grow.

What one recommendation would you give to managers working with young leaders?

Take the time to understand the differences in perspectives, skills, abilities and motivation that we bring to the table. As long as whatever generation has that drive to affect positive change and to run government in the best interest of the taxpayers, that is enough to unite the generations to work together to really make government better.

Next month: Heather will interview Tim's boss, Cabinet Secretary Robert Ferguson, on how he manages and guides Tim and other young leaders.


More from Public Workforce