By Kristen Obst, PhD
Program Director, Public Administration Program
American Public University
The field of public administration is so much a part of our daily lives that it has become invisible. By extension, most people are unaware of the preparation required to enter this workforce. Careers in public administration include emergency management, criminal justice, public health, national security, and environmental policy.
The Master’s in Public Administration (MPA) is the MBA equivalent for the public sector. The public sector is every level of government, local, state, federal, and all of its concomitant services. The MPA is the multidisciplinary degree that, for example, helps town planners prepare budgets and governors’ staffs analyze policy.
Why should students who are exploring graduate options consider working in government now, when budget shortfalls, furloughs, and layoffs are regularly making news? The public sector continues to provide, and will continue to provide, services that the private sector can’t. Efforts to privatize services like highways, prisons, healthcare, and schools have been tried, but have had moderate success and opinions of their efficacy are mixed (Gaes, 2010).
Consider this case study: the government houses prisoners at a high cost to taxpayers. The New York Times found incarceration cost an average of $24,000 per prisoner annually in 2005, or $44 billion per state (Liptak, 2008). There is profit to be made, so private companies entered the market. Incarceration is an expensive business, counties and states are strapped for cash, so they privatized their prisons. That should have freed up money for other public services like schools, but did it? States like Minnesota discovered that privatizing public services ended up costing them money in the end so it was a net loss in both savings and service quality (Shultz, 2011). Privatization may have seemed like a cost cutting measure, but it was a short term solution.
While the public sector may not seem like a field to break into, an aging public sector workforce (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012, US Department of Labor, 1999), an aging population who will need services (US Census Bureau, 2011), and the second and third order effects of our decades long conflicts in the Middle East will have on our VA system all will increase demands for public sector services. Skilled employees with graduate degrees who can analyze risk, evaluate programs, create and balance a budget, and understand and enforce the law are needed. The skills the MPA offer are timeless, flexible, multidisciplinary, and applicable to any level of government.
As we are facing rapid technological change, an uncertain economic future, and a complex employment prospectus, having an adaptive degree that prepares you for a changing market is more than just smart planning. It is a wise investment in our collective future. Despite some current short-term issues, planning for a career in the public sector is a wise choice.