What are the career backgrounds of city managers in the United States?

Wesley Meares, Beth M. Rauhaus and William Hatcher

In our recent Local Government Studies article, we report the career paths of city managers from a nationwide survey of 345 chief administrative officers leading cities throughout the United States (U.S.). We sought to understand who the chief administrative officers are, how they arrived in their current position, and the significant challenges they face. Exploring these topics helps us describe the composition of local government managers, and knowing the career paths of these public administrators helps our field in preparing future managers for their service. While these topics have been researched in the past, for example, by Watson and Hassett (2004) and Folz and French (2005), an updated view of chief administrative officers of U.S. cities was needed. To explore these questions, a survey was sent to chief administrative officers of small, medium, and large cities throughout the U.S. From our survey, we learned three key takeaways.

Who: The Make-Up

Local government management in the U.S. needs to diversify. Most survey respondents reported being white males, with nearly half being 55 or older and only slightly over 18% reporting as female. Public administrators must reflect and mirror the communities they serve, and local government management in the U.S. does not represent the nation’s diverse population. Thus, diversity needs to be a focus of the field in the future. There will soon be an opportunity with the impending retirements of many in local government management – what the ICMA has labeled a “silver tsunami.” This oncoming wave shows up in our survey’s findings. Over 50% of those surveyed indicated they intended to retire in the next ten years, and 30% said they would retire within five years. The need to hire the next generation of local government managers is an excellent opportunity to increase gender and racial diversity in local government.

How: Career Pathways

Local government management is more stable than in the past. Of those surveyed, the average tenure in their current positions was a little over seven years. One career pathway to local government management is having prior work experience in the area. Most of those surveyed were hired into their current positions as external candidates, often making lateral moves in their careers. Another career pathway to local government is having experience in budgeting and planning. City managers identified developing negotiation skills, having a mentor, and earning an MPA as other critical pathways to local government management.  

What: Major Challenges

Local government management is more concerned with technical aspects of the job (time management, leading teams, human resource actions, etc.) than political conflict and relations with the public. This is a surprising finding. On the one hand, it is positive that city managers are concerned with the nuts and bolts of their jobs. However, on the other hand, many of the challenges they face will surround issues of politics. For our field of public administration to advance democratic governance, we need public administrators to be concerned about politics and community outreach.

With the fast-approaching retirement of many within local government, there is an opportunity for U.S. cities to diversify their workforce, particularly those leading cities. Our study’s data on career pathways provide a roadmap to help public administration scholars and instructors help achieve effective, efficient, and equity in local government management.

Wesley L. Meares is an Associate Professor of Public Administration in the Department of Social Sciences at Augusta University, where he serves as the graduate program director for the Master of Public Administration program. His research focuses on housing policy, community development, sustainability, and local government administration.

Beth M. Rauhaus is an Associate Professor of Public Administration and the MPA Program Coordinator in the Department of Social Sciences at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi. Her research explores issues of gender and diversity in the public sector.

William Hatcher, Ph.D. is a professor of public administration and chair of the Department of Social Sciences at Augusta University. His research explores the intersections of public administration and healthy policy, public administration education, and public budgeting.


Folz, D. H., & French, P. E. (2005). Managing America’s small communities: People, politics, and performance. Rowman & Littlefield.

Watson, D. J., & Hassett, W. L. (2004). Career Paths of City Managers in America’s Largest Council‐Manager Cities. Public Administration Review, 64(2), 192-199.

Picture credit:Luis Marina

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