‘Golden’ opportunity to make a difference

Boasting impressive job-placement rates and rewarding careers, 50-year-old public administration program at NIU looks to expand

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NIU Master of Public Administration alumni have helped shaped the Chicago region. Click on the community to see what leadership positions they hold.

Wanted: Students who are interested in a master’s degree program that boasts a paid two-year internship and, despite the tough economy in recent years, has maintained a job-placement rate of about 95 percent.

Program graduates will enjoy excellent starting salaries and have opportunities to be leaders of leaders, making a direct impact on the quality of life in the communities where they work.

This isn’t some too-good-to-be-true offer.

Northern Illinois University’s nationally ranked Master of Public Administration (MPA) program, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is seeking to expand its program enrollment by 50 percent in the coming two to three years to meet growing demand in the field expected in the face of baby boomer retirements.

U.S. News and World Report ranks NIU’s MPA program fifth in the nation in the specialty field of city management and urban policy and 12th in the field of public finance and budgeting. Those rankings are ahead of programs at all public and private institutions in Illinois and at many elite schools nationwide.

Indeed, the NIU MPA program produces about one-third of all Illinois municipal managers (view related interactive map), as well as administrative leaders in non-profits, park districts and police, fire, public works and economic development departments across northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.

“Despite the success of our program across five decades, we find it increasingly difficult to attract millennials to the profession,” says professor Kurt Thurmaier, director of the NIU Division of Public Administration.

Kurt Thurmaier

Kurt Thurmaier

“College students today tend to view government with suspicion and are more attracted to non-profit organizations,” he adds. “Our challenge, and the challenge of local governments, is to convince them they can feed their passion to make a difference in their communities with a local government position.”

The NIU MPA program is one of the oldest of its kind in the state. Faculty and alumni have played a major role in efforts to professionalize municipal staffs statewide and advance the national good government movement.

“We stress the importance of a professional MPA degree to provide high quality and ethical local government services,” Thurmaier says.

“This is especially important in a state that has grappled with a culture of political corruption among elected officials. It’s rare to find someone with a professional public administration degree involved in these situations because the degree instills ethical responsibility, democratic accountability to citizens and obligations of transparency. Those core values help build public confidence in local government.”

NIU alums are at the administrative helms of such northern Illinois communities as Addison, Algonquin, Bartlett, Carol Stream, Clarendon Hills, Crystal Lake, Deerfield, Elgin, Elmhurst, Flossmoor, Geneva, Glen Ellyn, Hoffman Estates, Lake in the Hills, Lemont, Lincolnwood, Lombard, Manhattan, Oak Brook, Oswego, Rochelle, Rockford, Schaumburg, St. Charles, Sugar Grove, Tinley Park, Warrenville, Western Springs, Winfield, Winnetka and Yorkville.

Counties with NIU administrators or assistant administrators include Boone, Lake and McHenry. MPA alumni also hold key public-service posts across the country in such states as Arizona, Iowa, Colorado, California, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida.

Valerie Salmons

Valerie Salmons

“I wanted to make a difference,” says Valerie Salmons, Bartlett village administrator, when asked why she pursued an NIU MPA degree.

“I believe there is value and dignity in government service,” she adds. “In particular at the local level, you have an opportunity to really improve people’s lives and help them on a day-to-day basis.”

Salmons says the NIU program prepares its graduates to hit the ground running. Its hallmark, she and other alumni agree, is a two-year, paid internship program with area municipalities. It allows MPA students to put into practice what they learn in the classroom.

“The NIU program was vital in achieving career goals because of the opportunity to work directly with practitioners, (including) both your professors and the people you met through your internship experience,” says Megan Pierce, a 2007 MPA graduate who now serves as assistant to the village manager in Winnetka.

“I had professors who also consulted with or had been professionals in municipalities in the past. Then I was meeting a different set of professionals in my internship experience. The opportunity to network with those people for two years was critical.”

Jennifer Maltas, a 2007 graduate who now serves as deputy village manager for the Village of Buffalo Grove, wholeheartedly agrees.

Jennifer Maltas

Jennifer Maltas

“As an intern, I actually managed the budget program for the Village of Schaumburg,” she says. “It really gave me a good foundation for future positions, and I think it was one of the reasons they ultimately ended up hiring me.”

NIU MPA graduates also have a network of alumni to rely on for professional guidance and advice.

“A lot of the people who I graduated with or who were a year ahead of me are my best friends today,” Maltas adds. “I talk to someone from the (NIU MPA) program every day, and I think those relationships have helped me personally, but they’ve also helped me in the profession.”

Matthew Simpson just completed his internship with the Village of Glen Ellyn and plans to graduate with an NIU MPA degree in December. As an undergraduate, he studied economics and finance, then worked in economic development for the Rockford Area Economic Development Council.

“My work experience in Rockford was my first exposure to professional public administrators,” Simpson says. “I saw there were trained professionals that were charged with managing the services that citizens receive. I understood the importance of this public leadership, and I decided it was something I could do.”

Despite the economic downturn in 2008 and the reduced size of some local government staffs, NIU’s public administration program has maintained a job placement rate of about 95 percent over the past five years.

Many graduates who pursue local government posts start out as management analysts and then move into assistant-to-the-manager positions.

Illinois City/County Management Association logoIn the Chicago area, analysts have a mean salary of $56,593, while assistants-to-the-manager boast a mean salary of $72,600, according to a 2013 salary survey done by the Illinois Association of Municipal Management Assistants, an affiliate of the Illinois City/County Management Association (ILCMA). A direct assistant manager earns a mean salary of $103,420 and a village or city manager in the Chicago metro area earns an average salary of $142,800.

“The Northern Illinois region is fortunate to have the NIU MPA program,” says Dawn Peters, ILCMA executive director. “Other states don’t necessarily have programs like this in their back yards.”

While many mid-level working professionals pursue the NIU MPA degree, more young people or pre-career students are needed in the field.

“We’re doing a lot of outreach to the universities at undergraduate levels because these students typically don’t think of it as a career choice,” Peters says. “If we don’t continue to promote it, there will be a crisis.”

According to the International City/County Management Association, based in Washington, D.C., the local government management profession is approaching a crossroads as baby boomers who comprise the majority of local government managers approach retirement at a quickening pace. Nationally, there aren’t enough young professionals to fill the void at entry and mid-level positions.

MPA 50th anniversary logo: Celebrating the Legacy ... Inspiring a New Generation“Local government is going to go through this exodus of boomers,” NIU’s Thurmaier says. “So we need to attract young people to the profession, while also continuing to make our program attractive to mid-career professionals, who actually represent the majority of our student market.”

Students and working professionals often choose NIU’s MPA program because of its national reputation, and employers often hire program graduates because its alumni have a proven track record.

“Communities know our graduates come to them with at least two years of experience under their belts,” Thurmaier says. “They understand budgets, finances, personnel management, how to work in and change organizations, how to use information technology to improve effectiveness and how to develop performance-oriented organizations.

“What’s more, our graduates are grounded in ethical responsibility and democratic accountability,” he adds. “We have spent 50 years building this program and nurturing relationships with students, alumni, partner communities and now area non-profits. We don’t take any of those relationships for granted.”

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