March 11, 2023
“It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.”
That pithy proverb is sometimes said by people who are not advancing in their career, dismissing the accomplishments of those who do move up.
However, at least in the public sector, beginning a successful career starts with not just what you know, but also what you’ve accomplished. Especially for government jobs, experience is essential.
In fact, most government job specifications include explicit requirements for experience. Regardless of which politicians or high-level administrators an applicant knows, applications for entry-level jobs advance to the interview stage only if a human resource analyst reviewing the application, usually free from political or social influences, sees all required experience.
So, how does one gain the necessary experience to begin a career?
AmeriCorps provides one valuable path toward experience. A related fellowship program, CivicSpark, run by the nonprofit CivicWell, connects AmeriCorps members to entry-level jobs focusing on sustainability in the public sector. CivicSpark fellows are placed with local government agencies and nonprofit organizations working on issues including climate change, water and mobility.
Mary Graham provides a good example of the benefits of these programs. In 2021, as she was completing her bachelor’s degree in environmental science and resource management at CSU Channel Islands, a professor sent an email suggesting students look into CivicSpark. She applied and was selected for a yearlong CivicSpark fellowship with the city of Goleta’s environmental services division.
While at the city, Graham helped revamp their community cleanup program, Beautify Goleta. The program holds citywide cleanup events throughout the year. These events include a bulky item drop-off site and multiple neighborhood litter pickups. She also worked on stormwater and solid-waste management projects.
After the assignment, Graham hadn’t yet found the right opportunity for permanent employment so she served a second fellowship, this time with the city of Agoura Hills. There, she helped monitor and implement a climate action and adaptation plan. Halfway into the assignment, she successfully landed a permanent job with Ventura County’s integrated waste management division.
Earlier this month, Graham became my colleague. She is now learning how to start food recycling programs at businesses, run local community cleanup events and approve and monitor recycling plans for construction and demolition projects.
The county of Ventura currently has three of its own CivicSpark fellows in the planning division of the Resource Management Agency. These fellows include Emma Swanson, who works on general plan implementation, Jay Schmidt, specializing in area plans and resources, and Jeannette Lizarraga, focusing on housing and state mandates. Two work almost entirely from remote sites while the third lives in Ventura.
Financial compensation may be the major barrier for some people who would like to take advantage of AmeriCorps programs. Workers are national service participants, rather than regular employees, and are paid only a “living stipend.” The pay is so low, a worksheet outlining compensation given to program applicants includes a line item for SNAP, the federal assistance program formerly known as food stamps.
In this way, AmeriCorps mirrors the California Conservation Corps, another successful but financially challenging program through which workers gain experience. A page on the corps’ website features its flippant motto: “Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions and more!”
I started my own career in resource conservation 35 years ago with the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, an urban version of the CCC. As the corps’ recycling coordinator, I gained experience necessary for successful application to the county of Ventura. I now donate each year to the corps in appreciation of the opportunity.
When I retire, perhaps after another decade, I may join a special AmeriCorps program for seniors through which 140,000 volunteers teach children to read, deliver groceries to homebound seniors, work on disaster recovery and other good projects.
David Goldstein, an environmental resource analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency, can be reached at 805-658-4312 or email@example.com.