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Voices. Knowledge. Solutions.

Pipelining the Municipal Workforce of the Future

Neither Dennis Turner nor Ariel Cathcart needs convincing of the importance of programs that introduce young people to careers in municipal government — both of them are living examples.

Columbia's Mayor's Fellows program participants
Columbia's Mayor's Fellows program provides firsthand municipal government experience to undergraduate, graduate and professional students. Photo: City of Columbia.

Cathcart interned as a Mayor's Fellow in Columbia soon after she graduated from college. Now, she's the full-time director of special projects in Mayor Steve Benjamin's office. Turner became interested in a career in law enforcement after joining an Explorer Post when he was a teenager; now he's the chief of police in Hanahan.

They are just two illustrations of the importance of introducing young people to the possibilities of careers in local government from law enforcement to developing policy. Often, people who choose to work for a municipality do so because of a passion for public service, so helping them understand the range and types of careers is a critical concern for local leaders. Educating people about municipal career possibilities can happen in many ways, often when young people are figuring out their interests and passions.

That's what happened for Turner, who joined an Explorer Post while he was in high school. Explorers allow young people, typically between 14 and 21 years old, to learn about working in the field of law enforcement.

"When I was 16 years old, I went to an Explorer Post meeting in Charleston. From that point on I was hooked. I did it until I was 21, when I was at the College of Charleston," Turner said. "Most kids were going to parties on Friday nights. I was riding in a squad car."

Hannahan's Explorer program
Hanahan's Explorer program works with both the police and fire departments.
Photo: City of Hanahan.

In Hanahan, where Turner is in his fourth year as police chief, the Explorer program builds bridges with the young people in the community by teaching both police work and the importance of making sound decisions. It also is a good recruiting tool, he said.

"One person who did the program with me is now an officer out of state. One individual started at 12 palling around with us; he became a dispatcher and now he's a police officer with us."

Because Hanahan isn't a large municipality, the police department has partnered with the fire department to make the Explorer Post cover both public safety and first responder duties. Students attend meetings, get instructional materials and learn about search warrants, traffic stops and other parts of the job. "It's as close to the real-life version of 'cops and robbers' that you can do without being on the job," Turner said. "I firmly believe in it. It gets young people immersed in what we do, and helps them decide, 'Yes, I want to do this,' or 'No, I want to do something else.' It gives them a close and personal view of what we do."

That close, personal view is something the City of Columbia does with its Mayor's Fellows program, which recruits undergraduate and master's level students and provides first-hand knowledge of how a local government operates. The three-month program operates in the fall, spring and summer, offering eight students at a time the chance to understand the possibilities of working in city government. Students come from schools around the city, the state and other states, and they earn college or internship credit for the unpaid internships.

Ariel Cathcart began her stint as a Mayor's Fellow in January 2015, just after she graduated from the University of South Carolina.

"I had no idea yet what I was going to do, and I ended up falling in love with the work. So I ended up staying, first in a part-time job [supervising] the fellows and then a full-time job as director of special projects."

The program participants learn about all areas of city government, sitting in on meetings with the mayor, taking notes, writing letters and proclamations, and learning about how to develop policy. Each Mayor's Fellow researches a project while participating in the program, including one that helped develop a youth commission for the city. Cathcart said the city builds relationships with the fellows, helping steer them toward projects and careers where they show an interest.

"It's cool to see everything that happens at a local level. A lot of time we think that Washington, D.C. is the only one making decisions. But at a local level, we're the ones putting our hands in the dirt and getting things done. At a local level, you have more relationships with the people you're affecting. You have an impact on policy and programming," Cathcart said.

Some of the fellows go on to law school or graduate programs, others start careers in public relations, media, business, public administration or criminal justice. Some discover their interest in project management, while a few hope to eventually run for office, she said. The city helps the Mayor's Fellows network and find their paths.

"It's an opportunity for them, but also for us to have them here. If I can make sure they use what they learn through our network, then I feel the program is successful," she said.

In Lake City, the training starts even earlier with the Next Up summer internship program for students who have finished at least two years of high school. The internship program was started at the direction of financier and philanthropist Darla Moore, who is a native of Lake City.

Lake City's Next Up intership program
The Next Up internship program connects students with possible
careers throughout the community, including the City of Lake City.
Photo: Greater Lake City Community Outreach Center.

"In the summer of 2018, and with the funding of the Darla Moore Foundation, the Next Up summer internship was birthed as a youth-driven, paid summer internship program that aimed to provide a safe space for youth to discover their strengths and abilities, to develop soft skills, or skills that help them work more effectively and cooperatively, and to explore opportunities, such as how to communicate and greet others and how to dress appropriately for a job, for success through community engagement, active participation and positive youth development as they train to be the next generation of leaders in Greater Lake City," said Ericka A. Bennett-Bell, director of the Greater Lake City Community Outreach Center, which administers the program.

"Through partnerships with the community, the internship was able to give all participating students a behind-the-scenes look at their community, thus enabling them to develop a deeper appreciation for their small town."

In their positions with various city, civic and community-based agencies, the students, typically high school juniors and seniors, learn collaboration and employability skills and become engaged in their community. The participants work 12 – 15 hours each week for eight weeks at various sites around Lake City, with classes on soft skills held at least once each week. The interns also are required to volunteer in the community and keep weekly logs and journals.

The internship sites include the City of Lake City, the Greater Lake City Chamber of Commerce, Community Development Office, the Community Resource Center, the Darla Moore Foundation, the Pee Dee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Assault, the Lynches Lake Historical Society, Lake City ArtFields Collective and Visit Lake City.

"In order for any community to be successful, it's imperative to rally the support of the youth, for they are next in line to lead the community — if they return. The only way they will return after graduation is if they love their community. They can't love their community if they don't understand it and know how it works, or if they are nonparticipants in decision making," she said.

Along with helping students learn skills, the program also has allowed students from all socioeconomic backgrounds to get to know each other and work together. Many students have also become volunteers for nonprofit organizations, such as the Lake City Creative Alliance.

"Most importantly, it's amazing to see the unlikely friendships formed by the group. Many would have never crossed paths in life if it weren't for this program," Bennett-Bell said. "But now, they can't stay apart."