Government Job Profile: Public Works Director

public works director giving presentation
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Public works directors manage several essential functions of city government. While the exact portfolio of services under a public works director varies from city to city, this director usually has those functions that require construction and maintenance and those that citizens are billed for on a monthly basis such as water, wastewater, electricity and trash collection. These functions are some of the most fundamental activities a city government undertakes.

The Selection Process

A city’s public works director is hired by and reports to the city manager or an assistant city manager. Even if the city manager is not the public works director’s immediate supervisor, the city manager must approve of whoever is hired. It is too important of a position for the city manager to completely delegate the hiring decision.

The normal government hiring process is typically followed. Cities may require finalists to participate in more than just one interview. Additional interviews would likely be with small groups of influential citizens or in town hall meetings.

The Education and Experience You'll Need

Cities generally required candidates for public works director positions to have a bachelor’s degree in public administration, engineering or a related field and significant experience in public works and management. A public works director must be a solid manager and a technical expert.

Lacking in either area significantly diminishes a public works director’s effectiveness.

Public works directors must synthesize complex information about public works projects that can be understood by audiences that do not have the technical background to understand the finer details.

Candidates should also have experience writing reports and giving presentations to groups.

Because so much of the work done by public works departments is projectized, it is essential that a public works director has experience managing projects with large budgets, long time frames and broad scope. A project management professional certification is desirable.

What You'll Do

Public works directors oversee sub-departments within a city’s public works department. Exactly which sub-departments fall under public works depends on the city. The mix of departments varies over time as personnel changes. All organizations must align themselves to maximize the talents of the organization’s members. A mix of departments that makes sense at one time can be disastrous at another time simply because people occupy different roles in the organization.

Sub-departments that usually fall under the public works department include the following:

  • Streets
  • Sanitation (also known as “Solid Waste,” “Trash” and “Garbage”)
  • Maintenance (also known as “Facilities”)
  • Engineering
  • Utilities
  • Code Enforcement

At times, city staff do not have the time, resources or expertise to undertake particular projects or parts of projects. In these instances, the city procures goods or services from vendors to complete the project.

The public works director reviews and approves procurement documents like statements of work, requests for proposals and invitations for bids. A public works director’s technical skill, management responsibilities and project management techniques come together in these assignments.

The public works department monitors these contracts and holds vendors responsible for living up to the agreements and expectations established in the contracts. Public works staff work closely with city financial and legal staff to ensure that the city’s interests are protected and appropriate consequences are set when vendors do not perform their contractual duties.

Public works directors write and review written reports. Keeping the audience in mind is critical. Public works reports can easily become so technical that the average interested citizen cannot understand them.

The last thing anyone wants a report to do is confuse or mislead the reader.

As in writing reports, the public works director must consider audiences in oral presentations. The director is often called upon to present information to the city council or groups of citizens. Over time, the director can educate city council members to understand more of the technical details. But city council members turn over, and city council meetings are open to the public. A public works director must be able to explain the relevant details of a project so that the average citizen can understand.

What You'll Earn

Director salaries in city government largely depend on the size of the city and the number of staff under each director’s supervision. The larger the city, the more directors make. Heads of larger departments tend to make more than those with smaller departments; however, the salaries should still be comparable because of department heads’ shared status level in the organization.