A career in public works: unlimited potential

Susan M. Hann, P.E., AICP, ICMA-CM
Deputy City Manager
City of Palm Bay, Florida
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

In November 2007, the APWA Leadership and Management Committee concluded its series of articles on public works leadership and management issues entitled "The Baker's Potluck." This was the third series of articles (the first being "The Baker's Dozen," the second being "The Baker's Menu") that discuss various leadership and management topics of interest to APWA members. The committee's new series is entitled "Recipes for Success" and touches on a variety of leadership and management topics. Along with each article is an actual recipe for a favorite public works dish submitted by a member. Each recipe is a favorite from the members in their department. Give them a try.

The public works profession is known for its challenges and opportunities. When people talk about "cushy government jobs" I'm pretty sure they've never filled a pothole in Florida in July nor cleaned up after a sewer break. Even those of us who deal mostly in paper and people have days filled with stress, uncertainty, conflict and excitement. Life in public works is never easy, but it is always rewarding.

I think this is why so many service and civic-minded people find a home in this profession. It is a place where you can truly make a difference in your community from anywhere in the organizational chart. It is also a profession where there are abundant opportunities for personal and professional growth.

There are many examples of people who started their working life in public works and stayed until retirement. Jim Proce, Palm Bay's Public Works Director, is one such example. He came to Palm Bay as a draftsman in 1981. Since then he has obtained his bachelor's and master's degrees and is now our Public Works Director (with aspirations to be city manager). I'm sure Jim didn't go to grammar school hoping to be a public works director someday; but once he landed in Palm Bay and discovered the opportunities in public works he set himself on a path to make continuous progress. Over the years, I've observed folks like Jim who have worked towards advancement in the public works profession. The following are some of the common traits that I believe will help you succeed in your desire to advance.

Figure out where you want to be and design a path to get there. Set some goals. Make a plan. It is difficult to get ahead if you haven't defined what "get ahead" means to you. This doesn't need to be a 20-year plan, but it does need to have some short-, mid- and long-term milestones and action items. For me, it was things like: get a civil engineering degree, get a P.E. license, get a master's degree in business, etc. See the next few steps in your career path and figure out what you need to do to get there. My career objective was to create options and opportunities. I don't have one singular "I want to be" goal. I want to have the skills to try whatever may come my way that interests me. That's my plan. Yours might be more specific or less specific. Determine what feels right for you.

Be happy in your work. Most people work at least eight hours per day. That's a long time to do something you don't enjoy. It is hard to be enthusiastic and interested when you're miserable. If you're unhappy, your body language and attitude most likely ooze your discontent. So, being unhappy can be a downward spiral. You may not like where you are, but no one else wants to give an unhappy camper a shot. My advice is that you put a smile on your face and be happy wherever you are in your career. You are the only one that controls how you feel every day. You can't depend on others to make your happiness for you. Once you adjust your attitude, you might find that you like your job better. But, if not, finding a new place to work will be much easier if you've built a reputation as a contributing team player, not a grumbling Neanderthal.

Get some education. This means setting some goals and figuring out what training and education you need to get there. Education doesn't have to mean 10 years of night school. It might mean taking a finance class, taking a foreign language class, taking a computer seminar—whatever might make you a more valuable, well-rounded employee. There are many free web seminars. Go to the library and check out a book on a new topic. Continuous learning is one indication of an interested, enthusiastic employee. Even if your employer won't pay for training, there are plenty of opportunities for you to learn. Many communities offer free classes or you can volunteer in a role that might give you the training you need. Churches, charitable organizations, youth sports groups all need volunteers. You can learn people skills, bookkeeping, computer skills, etc. while helping your community. With a little initiative, you can find scholarships too. Check with your local APWA chapter or local Public Managers Association to see what they offer.

Network. Get out there in your community and your professional societies. Go to Chamber of Commerce events. Volunteer to be a speaker. You never know where these connections might lead you. The adage about "who you know" is usually true, not in the corrupt sense, but in the sense that people trust people they know. I always feel honored when someone asks me to provide a reference for them. That means that they believe they have shown me their strengths and they trust me to talk about them favorably. I try to behave as if everyone I meet may be asked for a reference about me (which, in the public works context, is not far from the truth when you consider our political environment).

Take initiative. Take on jobs, projects or assignments that are outside of your job description and/or outside of your comfort zone. You aren't learning anything new if you are doing the same thing you did yesterday and the day before. The public works profession has unlimited opportunities for growth. There are always projects that need to be done. Take on something new. If you're less of a risk taker, volunteer to be on the team and take on a small assignment while learning from others. If you like a challenge, take on the leadership of the project.

Find a mentor or several mentors. You can always learn something from someone else. Watch the behavior of other people. Find good examples and bad examples. There are people I've encountered throughout the years who have provided demonstrations of behaviors that wouldn't work for me. These were very valuable experiences for me as I was able to learn from other people without having to try these behaviors myself. On the other hand, I've met many people over the years who have shown me great examples of the leadership and management traits I now try to use consistently. Keep in mind there is no one right way. You must figure out what works best for you.

No excuses. There are always setbacks. Make a commitment to a "no excuses" policy. Yes, you may have challenges and obstacles to overcome, but don't use them as excuses to stop making progress. Working through challenges and obstacles will also be valuable learning experiences. I have to thank my parents for this one. When I was a kid, I delivered newspapers no matter how bad it was snowing or how lousy I felt. I learned the value of living up to commitments whether they are commitments to yourself or others. I also learned that the weather is better in Florida, so I moved south.

I do feel it is important to comment on the public works employees who are happy where they are. Not everyone wants to be on the "unlimited potential" stairmaster, where climbing is continuous and can become the objective rather than the means. People who find their niche and execute their jobs well are very important to an organization. These folks are the foundation of success. They are solid, stable and skillful. Our organization has some of the most talented heavy equipment operators around. If they all decided to be city managers, our work would definitely suffer. Some of them may want to be city managers and if that's the case, we'll help them get there. If not, we are happy to thank them for the excellent contributions they are making to our organization in their current role.

That's the great thing about public works. If you want to find your niche and be a superstar in it, there are so many interesting niches from which to choose. If you want to climb the organizational ladder, there are almost unlimited opportunities for advancement. As a manager, I'm happy to give anyone who asks more responsibility. There's always more work than resources. If you want variety in your career, public works offers a vast array of geographical, technical and administrative challenges.

Public works is the profession of opportunity and choices. I would encourage you to do a little strategic thinking. Take a few minutes and write down what you want to be doing this time next year and identify five things you'd need to do to get there. My goal for 2010 (the year I turn 50) is to ride my mountain bike 3100 miles on the Continental Divide trail from Canada to New Mexico. The easy part will be preparing for the physical fitness challenges. The hard parts will be learning to like camping and getting some time off from my really awesome job!

If you'd like to hear more on this topic, APWA is sponsoring a free phone panel discussion entitled "Humble Beginnings - Unlimited Opportunities" on January 24 at 2:00 p.m. EST. The panelists are all public works professionals who may have started in surprising places but who are leaders in the profession today. To participate in the mentoring call, simply dial (877) 339-0022 and then enter the pin number *5955223*.

Susan M. Hann can be reached at (321) 952-3411 or


6 large lemons (halved or quartered)
4 large onions
1 gallon white vinegar
1 lb. butter
Red pepper flakes (to your preference)
Black pepper
1-2 gallons water

Bring all ingredients to boil and reduce heat to low simmer. Keep warm/hot until finished on a side flame or burner.

I begin by placing my seasoned chicken on the grill and then basting the meat on both sides. As the chicken cooks, just re-baste as needed until skin is golden brown. This adds flavor and moisture. Keep the flame to a minimum.

Bob Freudenthal
APWA Past President
Deputy General Manager
Hendersonville Utility District
Hendersonville, TN