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Become a City Administrator: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Learn how to become a city administrator. Research the education, training and professional experience you will need to start a career as a city administrator.

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Should I Become a City Administrator?

A city administrator oversees the operation of a municipality and carries out the decisions of the city council and the mayor. Those in the position must work well with other elected city officials and have strong management skills. Their role is similar to those of chief executives in business organizations. The career will likely be rewarding to those who seek to improve their communities, but is often stressful as well. Many individuals must first get their first city administrator jobs at smaller municipalities, then move on to manage larger cities.

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Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's; graduate degree required for some positions
Degree Field(s) Political science, public administration, business
Licensure and/or Certification Optional certification available
Experience 5-15 years, depending on the size of the municipality
Key Skills Communication, decision making, leadership, management, problem solving and time management
Salary (2014) $55,920 (median for city administrators)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ICMA, University of Omaha, Job Postings for October 2012, O*Net Online, PayScale.com

Step 1: Get Involved in Student Government in High School

High school students interested in careers in city administration may gain experience, communication skills and management skills by participating in student government. It can also be helpful to take classes in economics, political science and government and to develop math and communication skills.

Success Tip:

  • Participate in a student leaders program. The National Association of Student Councils offers a student leadership program that hones the leadership skills of high school student council members. Participants build a portfolio of work that showcases their understanding of leadership, civic engagement and service, along with their knowledge of ten basic management concepts, including goal setting, team building, problem solving, group dynamics and communication.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

City administrators usually have an undergraduate degree in business, public administration or political science. They may have been active in student government at their colleges. Typical course topics for a bachelor's degree in public administration include financial management, economic development, strategic planning, fundraising, organizational communication and project management. Individuals with bachelor's degrees and enough relevant job experience may be able to get hired as city administrators in smaller cities.

Success Tip:

  • Complete an internship in public administration. Such internships, offered through the ICMA and other organizations, give students the opportunity to see how theoretical knowledge can be placed into practice and to hone specialized skills that can only be taught in a practical setting. Internships can be added to a resume.

Step 3: Work in a Municipal Position

Many aspiring city administrators begin their careers in entry-level positions, such as administrative assistant or budget analyst, in city administrators' offices or in other city departments. These positions help individuals gain experience in city operations, financial management and working with the mayor and city council.

Success Tip:

  • Obtain certification. Certification programs in public administration provide extensive instruction in ethics, work management, systemic integration and leadership. Successful completion may open up additional professional opportunities for the aspiring city administrator. Some programs lead to designation as a Certified Public Manager, a nationally recognized trademark designation. These programs are sometimes offered through universities; the Institute for Certified Professional Managers also operates a program for managers working in the public or private sectors that culminates in the Certified Manager certification.

Step 4: Acquire a Master's Degree

After gaining work experience in city operations, individuals may wish to pursue a master's degree to improve opportunities for advancement. According to the ICMA, many larger cities prefer to hire administrators who hold advanced degrees. A master's degree in public administration, with studies in finance and municipal legal affairs, can provide the necessary education needed for these jobs. Alternatively, many city administrators hold a master's degree in urban or regional planning.

Success Tip:

  • Get a fellowship. The ICMA offers the Local Government Management Fellowship to recent master's degree program graduates who are seeking professional advancement in the field of municipal government. Participants are mentored by senior government officials as they assume management positions in local government. Such fellowship opportunities frequently lead to permanent appointments as municipal managers.

Step 5: Participate in Continuing Education

Voluntary continuing education can be helpful both in providing additional skills to city managers and in synthesizing one's experience in management, leading to career advancement opportunities. The ICMA provides many such continuing education opportunities for city administrators, along with workshops on such topics as ethics, performance measurement, citizen engagement, leadership and innovation, planning, budgeting and finance.

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