St. Louis County, Missouri Tackles the Age Gap in Government

Two employees created the St. Louis County Government Young Professionals Group to prepare tomorrow's leaders for today -- and with no budget.
by | April 11, 2012

Heather Kerrigan

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

Missouri's St. Louis County is facing a problem many governments can relate to: A large portion of its workforce is eligible for retirement. And while many of its young employees want to fill those leadership roles, they don't have the experience or knowledge to do so. Katrina Sommer and Adam Roberts, two late-20-something employees in the county's Office of Community Development, wanted to do something to stop this cycle. They came up with the St. Louis County Government Young Professionals Group, which brings together passionate, young government workers who are eager to gain skills for advancement.

Sommer and Roberts don't just want to create replacement supervisors and department heads, though. They're also striving to positively impact the community and reverse the public's negative perception of government. And they're trying to do it all with no budget.

I asked Sommer and Roberts how they're tackling these personnel and financial challenges to achieve their goals so far. Their edited transcript is below.

How did you come up with the idea for the St. Louis County Government Young Professionals Group?

Sommer: Our personnel department has done some surveys that [show] people with 10 years of service or less are most at risk to leave if they don't have opportunity for immediate advancement. A significant portion of our employees are eligible for retirement now and there would be a huge gap in leadership [if they left]. The county wanted to cultivate those in our positions and keep them satisfied so when people do retire, there are people here ready to fill their positions. We talked [about] the problem that if you don't have a direct opportunity to manage or have professional development skills, then how are you going to be able to fill those shoes?

One fix we found was an internship management program for people like us who don't have direct reports. So I had an intern ... and it gives us the chance to see what it's like to manage people. So we thought, why not take it one step forward to develop additional skills? That's how this idea came to fruition.

Roberts: One initiative [the] personnel [department] had started five or so years ago was the CLI program -- County Leadership Initiative. The county had put in about $100,000 per year into the program that had this concept of training future leaders, but they put it on the backburner due to shrinking budgets. We had to put our heads together to create something that was low- to no-cost to show the county we can continue these efforts.

How did you get the idea off the ground?

Roberts: We had a liaison with head of personnel, then we discussed [the idea] with our supervisor, director and department head of our office. From there, we created a memo of understanding to flesh the idea out a little more so when we did send it to all of the department heads, their questions would be answered.

After that, the county executive cabinet met with us. After our personnel liaison got consensus, we sent out the application and the memo to the department heads and asked them to recommend people who they felt aligned with the young professionals initiative.

We were very diplomatic in this approach. We attempted to not bypass any level of authority that might put the brakes on this. We want to be respectful of all supervisors, directors, department heads and not go out of the chain of command. Aligning forces with our head of personnel just to make sure we didn't step on toes was very vital.

How many applications did you receive?

Sommer: We were expecting eight to 12 people, and we had 70 initial applications. Now we're up to 74. It goes to show how many people are out there who are trying to work hard and are hungry for these opportunities. We had a meeting to talk about what they want to get out of the group and not one person brought up a pay raise. It was about 'what can we do to motivate us to be better employees, position ourselves for future leadership.' [We used a recommendations process because] we wanted to make sure that the people that were joining weren't just joining to get out of work [and] to make sure that their interests were genuine -- which is exactly what we've seen. The caliber of members is pretty high.

How did you choose members?

Sommer: We've accepted all of the applications. We have not yet opened up the group to all county employees [those without recommendations] because we're at capacity right now.

What are participants hoping to get out of the group?

Roberts: As we gathered surveys in the application process and looked at our own goals, we found there were some common themes. For example, professional development, resume building, interview skills, communicating with supervisors, networking -- how to network, the importance of it, how to do it appropriately, networking internally and externally -- what to look for in a mentor, cross-collaboration.

Sommer: In government, there is a huge silo effect where you don't necessarily have that cross-collaboration with other government departments or know what they do. That's a weakness of ours. We want to overcome that.

What is the average age in the group?

Sommer: We did not put an age cap on the group. We did get a sprinkling of folks who are a little older, but their energy level is pretty high. And in our application and survey, we learned the majority of the people have only been here between five to 10 years.

Roberts: A majority of [the] members are 25 to 35.

How often does the group meet? What does it do?

Sommer: We have one meeting during staff time each quarter, and each quarter has a theme. We also offer different opportunities for contact with members. At the quarterly meeting, that's meat and potatoes, and sometimes we have a speaker. We have a follow-up happy hour and a community-service activity related to the quarterly topic.

Roberts: At quarterly meetings, we're touching base about what's going on, how we can get together, improve contacts with each other. It's really networking and getting these people together, helping them find common interest. [This contact] might help members initiate some pilot programs between departments.

Sommer: We want to do something each month so the group doesn't fall off. This quarter, we're focusing on success beyond [working hours]. The CEO of the local Red Cross is going to be talking to us about how it's not just what you do at work that's important, but also the rest of the time too. Because of the speaker, we encouraged blood donations, and we'll have another related community-service activity. The next theme might be a speed-dating activity for networking to introduce people and get them over that scary hump. With 74 people in the group, you're not going to know a lot about the people sitting next to you. We want to breach that barrier.

Does the group have a budget?

Sommer: We have a $0 budget.

Roberts: With our special speakers, we want to gear our community-service efforts toward that individual's profession because we don't have a lot of resources to bring in dynamic speakers and pay for it. But we do have man and womanpower to show them that we do appreciate them, and our work is their payback.

How do you choose what the group focuses on?

Sommer: In general, we're leaving the curriculum up to the members to decide because it will affect the county as a whole -- not just someone's agenda.

Roberts: We really want the group to have ownership of their ideas. If they don't have that, they'll disengage and that won't be effective.

What do you see as the overall benefit of a group of this type?

Sommer: It gives people that avenue to explore their intrinsic motivations for professional development [within] the county to make sure we keep the knowledge and we don't have that brain drain. It also helps county residents because we hope to have better services for them through cross-collaboration. It's a win-win for everyone.

It comes down to community, and it comes down to leadership. At the end of the day, we want to have really strong communities. We need to make sure the people who are going to be leading the government have that same attitude and initiative that it is all about the community -- not about pay raises or just about you. It's about the big picture.

Roberts: Just being able to bring innovation and creativity into engaging employees and not letting folks fall through the cracks and become discouraged and complacent. We can incorporate best practices into government … we can be cutting-edge, influence policy, make government a better overall place to work.

By attracting the best talent, we will be able to sustain our communities [by] showing young professionals how to be leaders internally and externally -- that's just very important to us and why we developed the group.


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