Virginia is the only state in the nation where the governor is limited to one four-year term. Of course there are advantages to this: For one, it eliminates the distraction of running for re-election. On the other hand, the 250 or so at-will political appointees in the state find themselves in a tricky position.
By definition, these at-will employees can be let go the second a new governor is sworn in -- as long as discrimination is not a factor. They not only include cabinet members but also high-level staffers for departments like budget, commerce, election administration, environmental protection and so on.
Although public appointees in other states face similar job insecurity, nowhere is it more of an issue than Virginia because of its term limits. Largely as a result, the commonwealth has instituted the “At-Will Transition Briefing" program -- which may be a first of its kind in the nation -- to help appointees secure their next job.
“As far as I know, we’re the only state doing this,” says Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe's chief of staff, Paul Reagan.
Virginia isn’t unique in helping at-will employees transition out of public service. Many states provide soon-to-be former appointees with lots of information about their pension plans, other retirement benefits and limitations on the types of jobs they can take after leaving their positions. Virginia has gone a step further: The state is essentially supplying employees who choose to take advantage with career coaching and seminars to help them move on to an enriching future.
Virginia’s effort is evolving but was kicked off with seminars during work hours in June of this year -- about half a year before a new governor comes along. They involved “a total of eight presentations, [providing] political appointees with a thorough framework for navigating their professional and financial futures,” wrote Reagan in an email to Governing.
The value of networking is a big emphasis. At the seminars, Deputy Chief of Staff Suzette Denslow told attendees that “networking is an essential part of any job search and an essential part of your career progression.” She urged the audience to pursue informational interviews.
“Go talk to people and don’t ask for a job,” she explained to Governing. “Use them to network.”
The state also provides resume counseling through a partnership with Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). When a member of the at-will group asks, their resume is passed along to experts at VCU, and they’ll come back with useful critiques.
The training also focuses on the importance of social media in job-seeking. When was the last time you knew someone searching for jobs in the classified ads in the local newspaper?
“[We showed] them how to use LinkedIn and other social media to help them land what their next adventure is going to be,” says Reagan.
In fact, the state invited a representative of LinkedIn to provide detailed, front-line information about this topic.
Beyond that, the plans are still being formed. The state hopes to do more in late October. The program, fostered by the governor and his cabinet, has been run through partnerships with Virginia Commonwealth University, the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management, the Virginia Employment Commission and the Virginia Retirement System.
Some wonder whether the need for such a program even exists. Wouldn't individuals in these competitive positions already have most of these skills?
Denslow explains that the state has a mix of at-will employees -- from entry-level scheduling assistants, for example, to senior cabinet members.
"The younger employees are in the early phases of building their networks and are not used to the idea of informational interviews with people they don't know," she says. "At the other end of the spectrum, we have some older cabinet secretaries who certainly have extensive networks and contacts but have never used LinkedIn or other social media to broadcast their skills."
Denslow also notes that many senior appointees haven't updated their resumes in years because they have historically been approached by others about job openings.
A program like this doesn't just help appointees in the future. The people running it say it can improve the current workplace and serve as a kind of group therapy for people facing uncertain futures.
“There’s safety in numbers where you can commiserate,” says Sara Wilson, director of the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management. "You can tell who has angst in a meeting. I say, ‘What’s the issue,’ and they say ‘I’m terrified.' And I say, ‘Let’s talk.’”
Reagan says it’s easy for employees to become distracted during their last year, and the more the state can help relieve them of the anxiety of the unknown, the better off everyone is.
“This is a way of keeping everybody’s morale high in their last year,” says Reagan.