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Amid ‘great resignation,’ appeal of private-sector employment, public servants tell why they followed their desire to help others

Some started in for-profits, opting later for public service

Illustration of hands shaking. On the hands are words such as "cooperate," "communicate" and "unite."

Photo illustration by John Hain/Pixabay

November 08, 2022

Editor’s note: This story coincides with ASU’s annual celebration, Salute to Service, which pays tribute to public servants in many fields, from first responders and members of the military to people working in government and community service positions.

Living through the COVID-19 pandemic has not only led many Americans to think about better-paying jobs, it has allowed for some soul-searching about whether pursuing the most money should be a worker’s primary career goal.

The field of those scratching their heads is a large one. One in five respondents to a survey of 52,000 workers in 44 countries earlier this year by PwCPricewaterhouseCoopers is an international professional services brand of firms, operating as partnerships under the PwC brand. It is the second-largest professional services network in the world and is considered one of the Big Four accounting firms, along with Deloitte, EY and KPMG. said they planned to change jobs during the next 12 months, CNBC reported.

Many already have quit their jobs in a mass effort dubbed the “great resignation.” Some, who faced higher-risk situations during the pandemic in retail or food service, left in search of alternate, potentially more lucrative, careers.

For others already making good incomes, the lessons of the pandemic — including one that reminds us that life is short — prompted a search for different forms of reward, such as the satisfaction of helping others through public service.

Similarly, many of those who spent years in the private sector are finally pursuing their dream of a job involving public service.

According to the PwC survey, while 71% of respondents said more money would motivate them to change their employment, 69% indicated they would switch jobs for increased fulfillment from the work itself.

Why do people choose careers in public service? The answers are as varied as the individuals themselves.

Knowledge of languages led to new career path

Jennifer Abdulla worked for 25 years as a procurement manager for subcontractor construction companies, but had nurtured a desire to enter law enforcement or some sort of public service from an early age.

After giving birth to a son who is on the autism spectrum and needed additional attention, she said, “I had to focus on raising him to become a functional adult, and then focus on my goals.”

Her opportunity came while she was an undergraduate at ASU. She spoke to a cybersecurity expert working for the FBI after he gave a lecture. He asked about her classes, and learned she had taken many non-degree-related, general courses at local community colleges.

“They were mostly languages, to stay busy,” said Abdulla, who had been learning Russian, Arabic and Spanish. “He said, ‘You can speak these languages, and you have a 4.0 (grade point average)?’ I said yes. He said, ‘Can I walk you down to the field office right now?’”

She thought he was kidding and explained to him that she didn’t have a degree yet and wasn’t fluent enough in those languages. He replied that she showed the ability to become fluent and suggested that she research fields pertaining to terrorism.

So Abdulla started exploring related classes. “And I signed up for all of them,” she said. She received her bachelor’s degree in criminology and criminal justice, focusing on terrorism, then earned a Master of Arts degree, both from the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

Prevented by her age from becoming an FBI agent (they only accept new trainees up to age 37), she thought about working for private defense contractors. But she lacked a security clearance, which put her in the Catch-22 situation of no clearance without a job and no job without a clearance.

Fortunately, she secured a yearlong internship with the National Nuclear Security Administration that paid a stipend — and also provided a security clearance. She was a fellow for three years.  

Abdulla took a temporary pay cut from her private-sector job to participate in the fellowship, but once she completed it and graduated again from ASU with a Master of Arts degree in global security from the School of Politics and Global Studies, a well-paying job was waiting for her in the federal government.

Today, Abdulla works for the U.S. Department of Energy in intelligence and counterintelligence in a position she started in the spring. She works to make sure the nation’s enemies do not gain access to nuclear weapons technologies and monitors facilities.

“I’m happy for the experience and relationships I made in private business. But everyone I know says they knew I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” Abdulla said.

Desire to help others began in grade school

Cynthia Seelhammer felt the tug to help others when she was a young Catholic school student. Early in her professional career, she was a newspaper reporter for the Chandler Arizonan in the East Valley.

“In Catholic school, I was taught that the best thing in life was to help other people,” she said. “As a reporter, I watched the city council struggle and the city staff trying to explain things to them. The role of community journalism was to take complicated issues and explain it to people to help them make important decisions.”

From that private-sector career in newspapers, Seelhammer went to work in communications and public information for the city of Mesa, playing a similar explanatory role internally for municipal employees and externally for Mesa residents.

The city helped pay the cost for Seelhammer to pursue her master’s degree, which began her career in public administration. She moved up the ranks with Mesa, first as assistant to the library director, in charge of budget and human resources. She said it provided her in miniature the kind of experience she’d need later to run an entire city.

“The library was like a little tiny town,” said Seelhammer, who went on to become Coconino County manager and the manager for several municipalities. Today she is a professor of practice in ASU’s School of Public Affairs and coordinator of the Marvin Andrews Fellowship in Urban Management, administered by the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

People working in local government possess a deep inner drive to make communities better, she said.

“We see things functioning, we keep improving things, because local government has something to do with so many aspects of life, from brushing your teeth in the morning to getting in your car and driving on a safe street with functioning traffic signals, to making sure your kids have safe parks and recreation programs after school and libraries serving the needs of communities,” Seelhammer said.

During the pandemic, Seelhammer said she observed many heroes, as she calls them, in local government service, more than at any time in her career. They dedicated themselves tremendously to keep public services running, she said, performing tasks such as getting fresh food to people who were far from grocery stores and making sure children studying from home still had lunches.

Seelhammer said that in recent times, the role of government itself, as well as the people who work in it, have endured significant criticism, most of it undeserved.

She said many of the criticisms lessen once people actually meet those in government and get to directly observe what they do.

Seelhammer chuckled upon being reminded of Winston Churchill’s famous observation that democracy is the worst form of government that there is, except for all the others.

“Is there a better system than the U.S.? I don’t know, but we are still the most successful country,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent of what we do is keeping things running efficiently. We try to do it faster, better, smarter and cheaper, but we have to keep it running.”

‘The best way I think I can live my values’

Madalaine McConville is pursuing a Master of Public Policy degree in the School of Public Affairs, expecting to graduate in May 2023. She is participating in the Marvin Andrews Fellowship. The fellows, often called Marvins, aspire to careers as top administrators in local government and work directly with city and county managers during their fellowship.

McConville said people, and the communities on which a public servant has an impact, are the driving force behind her pursuing a public service career.

“A core value of mine is to help people in any way, no matter what the job I am working,” she said. “Public service is the best way I think I can live my values each day while getting to make an impact on people's lives at the same time.”

To accomplish this, McConville said she strives to uphold principles of integrity and respect.

“They will guide my public service career the most to ensure I am making decisions I would want my government representatives to make on my behalf,” she said. 

Even in these times of increased criticism of government, McConville said local government enjoys higher levels of public trust than their state and federal counterparts.

“Public trust will be in the back of my mind to ensure my values are guiding the decisions I make.”