Government Job Profile: Assistant to the City Manager

The Grunt Work Now Paves the Road to Future Opportunities

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Assistants to the city manager conduct special projects and perform various duties under the direction of the city manager. They are not clerical staff. Rather, they tend to be young professionals trained in public administration who have a little bit of work experience under their belts and an eye toward their futures in public service.They are in their jobs primarily to learn and gain experience.

They will draw on this experience in future city management jobs. 

A large contingent of the next generation of city managers are now serving as assistants to the city manager. The insights and skills they are learning will serve as the foundation for their gut instincts they will use when making decisions as a city’s chief executive. Today’s city managers will eventually retire, and their right-hand people will be primed to assume official leadership of municipal governments.

The Selection Process

Assistants to the city manager are selected by the city managers under whom they serve. City managers use the normal government hiring process for determining which candidate will be the best fit.

Speaking of fit, this is the most important aspect of hiring an assistant to the city manager. The working relationship is critical. City managers do not have time to provide much hand-on supervisions, so a city manager needs someone who can run with a project and can be trusted to run with it in the right direction.

A city manager needs someone who he or she can trust in terms of competence and discretion.

The Education and Experience You'll Need

Job postings for assistant to the city manager positions require a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field and three to five years of work experience. Master’s degrees are preferred.

This means that someone coming right out of college is likely unqualified for the position but could be qualified once he or she gains a little “real world” experience.

Sometimes, cities allow master’s degrees to substitute for some or all of the required work experience. In such a situation, someone coming out of graduate school with a degree could slide right into the position but would be competing against people with relevant work experience.

Many assistants to the city manager hold master of public administration degrees. The prepares them for the challenges they will face in the job.

What You'll Do

Assistants to the city manager conduct special projects for the city manager. What the city manager does not have time to do, he or she passes off to an assistant city manager or an assistant to the city manager. If the assignment needs an experienced manager who knows the ins and outs of a subject, that task goes to an assistant city manager. Tasks that need a skilled analyst who can ask the right questions go to an assistant to the city manager.

Analyzing data, writing reports and attending meetings are common duties assigned to an assistant to the city manager. These duties require an analytical mind but not necessarily deep-rooted institutional knowledge.

Assistants to the city manager gain institutional knowledge over time, but they do not need it for their primary responsibilities. In fact, lack of institutional knowledge can be an asset for some assignments.

Curiosity is a great trait for an assistant to the city manager to have. Sometimes, a city manager needs a fresh set of eyes on a problem no one has been able to fix. An assistant to the city manager comes at the problem with no preconceived notions. He or she may run into other city staffers who say solutions have been tried and failed, but the curious assistant to the city manager keeps digging. There may be no viable solution to a given problem, but every avenue must be explored. Despite contrarians in their way, assistants to the city manager persevere when given a tough problem to solve.

Assistants to the city managers must always be self-aware, particularly in how other staff perceive them. Without an appropriate balance of confidence and humility, assistants to the city manager can come off as know-it-alls who revel in their status as direct reports to the city manager. They must show themselves competent without belittling other city staffers who have more experience.

If an assistant to the city manager wants to become a city manager somewhere down the road, it is important for he or she to take on challenging assignments that force him or her to grow professionally.

Having the city’s chief executive as a boss is a mentoring opportunity they must not squander. To get the most out of the job, assistants to the city manager should pick their bosses brains about how and why they do the things they do. How do city managers prioritize their work? Where do they focus their attention? How do they handle a naysayer on the city council?

People who occupy assistant to the city manager positions hang around just long enough to become qualified for assistant city manager jobs. They pay their dues running around from project to project and presentation to presentation to eventually make their move to assistant city manager jobs where they direct the activities of a handful of departments. The assistant to the city manager job gives these new assistant city managers a broad base of experience that helps them oversee departments where they likely do not have deep subject matter knowledge.

What You'll Earn

The salary for an assistant to the city manager job depends largely on two factors: the size of the city and the duties performed. Larger cities can afford to pay assistants to the city manager more than smaller cities can. Regardless of the city size, assistants to the city manager can expect to make significantly less than the city manager, assistants to the city manager and department heads. They can expect to make more than clerical staff.

The duties performed factor into the salary. If an assistant to the city manager performs complex data analyses, writes reports for broad distribution and manages projects, that assistant typically earns more than one with less complicated duties. If the assistant to the city manager is basically an administrative professional with a fancy title, the salary will reflect that. Such an assistant would make a little more than other administrative professionals.

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