How to Land a Local Government Job, with Serilda Summers-McGee

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If you have the desire to work in local government, you may wonder what you can do to have the best shot at an open position. Some of these positions receive hundreds of applications and the hiring process can be grueling. Today’s guest on the Find Your Dream Job podcast, Serilda Summers-McGee, says that relationships matter more than ever when pursuing a local government job. She tells us that the first relationship you build should be with a recruiter. You also need to understand how the local hiring process works and be ready to face stringent deadlines. If you want to serve your local city or town, learn how to stand out from the crowd, and what you can do now to help your chances of getting the job you want later.

About Our Guest:

Serilda Summers-McGee is the chief human resources officer for the city of Portland, Oregon. She has more than 15 years of experience in human capital management with expertise in a range of HR disciplines. She’s also the author of “Change The WorkGame: Building and Sustaining a Diverse Workforce.”

Resources in This Episode:


Find Your Dream Job, Episode 172:

How to Land a Local Government Job, with Serilda Summers-McGee

Airdate: January 2, 2019

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.

I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the publisher of Mac’s List. It’s an online community that connects talented professionals with meaningful work.

I believe everyone can find a job they love. But to do this, you need to learn the skills to build a successful career. From professional networking to personal branding, you’ve got to get good at job hunting.

This show helps you do this. Every week on Find Your Dream Job, I interview a different career expert. We discuss the tools and tactics you need to find the work you want.

This week, I’m talking to Serilda Summers-McGee about how to land a local government job.

Serilda Summers-McGee knows how local governments hire. She’s the Chief Human Resources Officer at the City of Portland. More than 10,000 people work in Portland’s government.

In our conversation today, Serilda says relationships matter when you want to get a local government job. She encourages job seekers to get to know the recruiters who help local agencies fill these positions.

Serilda also says it’s important to understand how hiring works in local government. She and I talk about the rules managers must follow. And we discuss the myths and old wives tales about government hiring.

Serilda tells me that candidates may face very competitive odds when looking for work in her sector. It’s not uncommon, for example, for some public jobs to attract hundreds of applications.   But she also offers practical tips to increase your chances of success.

Want to learn more? Listen in now at the Mac’s List studio as I interview Serilda Summers-McGee.

Serilda Summers-McGee is the Chief Human Resources Officer for the City of Portland.

She has more than 15 years of experience in human capital management and a range of HR disciplines. And she’s the author of Change The WorkGame: Building and Sustaining a Diverse Workforce.

Serilda joins us today here in the Mac’s List studio in Portland, Oregon.

Serilda, thanks for being on the show.

Serilda Summers-McGee:

Thanks for having me, Mac.

Mac Prichard:

Well, you know, it’s a pleasure. Our topic this week is one you know a lot about; it’s how to land a local government job. Let’s start, Serilda, by talking about why people want to go into public service.

What are some of the common reasons you see people give for working at the City of Portland and other local governments?

Serilda Summers-McGee:

Well, people pursue positions in the public sector for a host of reasons. I think everyone has their own kind of journey. There are some folks who are looking to give back. They consider themselves public servants so they want to come and work for the government to help strengthen the city, to help enhance the lives of the Portland residents. There are a variety of reasons like that why people come to the city.

Mac Prichard:

That’s terrific. Like any employer, local government has its own hiring processes. I think sometimes people think that networking doesn’t matter when it comes to local government. That it’s all about responding to formal postings and filling out forms.

Talk about that. How important is networking when you want to find a job in local government?

Serilda Summers-McGee:

Networking is important no matter what you’re seeking out. It’s no different from sector to sector. You need to build relationships and establish a reputation for who you are, how you present, how you show up when there’s an opportunity that you’re interested in.

The more relationships you have, the higher the likelihood that you will be noticed. Particularly if there is a really diverse and rich pool of talent. How do you stand out?

Mac Prichard:

How do you recommend people get started, Serilda? Particularly if they haven’t worked in local government before. How can they begin to build those relationships? Who should they reach out to?

Serilda Summers-McGee:

Well, one of the best ways to build a relationship with the city, from an employment standpoint, is to connect with recruiters. That’s one of the quickest ways that a person can get to start to build a relationship. Through a recruiter who happens to know every single position that is available currently and in the future at the City of Portland and at every company.

You should always know a recruiter. Mac should know a recruiter, because one day he may want to go on the inside. You need to know a headhunter who can put you in front of hiring managers so you’re not having to go out there in search of something by yourself without an advocate to talk about what your skill set is or how they know you, or how you show up, and what your gifts are.

There’s a person who can advocate for you.

Mac Prichard:

Let’s break it down. I’m hearing, “You need to find these people.” If I’m here in Portland or, perhaps, living in another city and I want to find recruiters in my local government, one way to do that is to go to career fairs.

What else can you do? How do you find these people on the web, for example? Once you do find a person’s name, how do you best approach them?

Serilda Summers-McGee:

Well, our recruiters of the city are listed on the website. One of the quickest ways to be able to access a recruiter is not to cold call. They receive millions and billions of cold calls all the time. There’s no way to be able to manage that level of volume.

If you were to send them an email and let them know that you were specifically interested in a role and let them know why and be pleasant and be calm and be polite to the recruiter. Sometimes people are not so polite.

Sometimes people have interviewed for positions for a really long time. Or they have applied for positions for a really long time. Particularly in high volume positions, like administrative support positions or entry level roles.

They can become a little feisty. That’s not the best approach with a recruiter, to be feisty. “You never use me for this.” Not helpful.

If you were to reach out and let them know that you’re interested in the position, let them know that you are going to continue to pursue positions at the City of Portland. Be persistent. Then, if you have been sending them emails and you see them at a career fair and are like, “Hey, I just wanted to reach out to you. I’m Cindy. I’ve been sending you emails about the positions at the city.”

They’re like, “Oh my goodness.” Now they have a face with a name. You’re pleasant and positive, your demeanor is really refreshing. Those are folks that you want to put your reputation on the line, to put them in front of a hiring manager.

It’s never just knowing one person and then utilizing only that one person that one time. “Look at it, it didn’t work out for me.”

It’s being consistent and being persistent in a respectful and courteous way that allows people to see like… “I want to spend time with you, I want to advocate for you and I want to help you get put on.”

Mac Prichard:

When you send that email, you introduce yourself, you express your interest in a position, is there another ask, Serilda? Do you ask for a phone call for five or ten minutes? Or perhaps a meeting at the person’s office?

What is a recruiter likely to say yes to? And how can a person make the most of that opportunity when it comes their way?

Serilda Summers-McGee:

It’s a great question, a phenomenal follow-up, for this reason, a lot of people want to take recruiters out for coffee. If you get a hundred coffee requests, it’s virtually impossible to spend forty-five minutes to an hour with every person. A phone call is great.

I tell folks, number one, just send over your materials. Let them know that you’re interested. It’s really quick that they can look at what’s there and maybe give you some feedback or let you know, “Yeah. I’ll follow up with this hiring manager.”

Especially if it’s a hard-to-fill position. We have many of those in the City of Portland. If it’s a high volume position, standing out, like, the initial reach out, then seeing if there are events that they are going to be at.

When they go to these career fairs and things of that nature, they’re often times coming with high volume positions in mind. Being there and also face to name, that’s helpful. Then, five to ten minutes over a phone call, particularly for a mid-level position is something a recruiter is always open to.

They’re also trying to find highly skilled and qualified talent.

Mac Prichard:

Have a very specific request, a five or ten-minute conversation, either in person or by phone, to again, talk about your interest in the position and get feedback about your application materials.

You can also go to public events like career fairs.

Serilda Summers-McGee:


Mac Prichard:

Which are generally pretty well advertised, aren’t they?

Serilda Summers-McGee:

They are.

Mac Prichard:

You’re in that big hall you, you see the table for your local government, the City of Portland or another city, you see a recruiter behind that table. How do you make the most of that opportunity? Is it just dropping off a resume or should you do something else?

Serilda Summers-McGee:

You should definitely bring a resume to those events. Always. That’s not just for the City of Portland. That’s for every employer that’s there. You should also shake that recruiter’s hand. You should let them know what position you’re interested in. That you’ve done some research and some homework.

Some people come to career fairs, they haven’t done any research or homework about any of the employers that are going to be there even though it’s been listed. Then you’re saying, “Oh, I’m interested in a job at the City of Portland.”

“What kind of job?”

“I don’t know.”

You should know. You should know the kind of job that you’re interested in, the kind of job you’re probably qualified for, and let them know… you know, sometimes there are hundreds of jobs posted at once.

The recruiter that’s behind the table, that might not be their wreck load, the positions that they’re recruiting for. Let them know.

“There’s a position that’s posted right now.”

Or, “There was one that was one that was posted three weeks ago but I saw that it cycled off. Are you aware of another one that’s going to be coming up any time soon?”

That’s a great entry point into a follow-up. Get a card and follow up. If they couldn’t answer a question or if you just want to remind them that you met and what your interests were.

Mac Prichard:

You recommend getting a business card. Should you have a business card of your own, Serilda?

Serilda Summers-McGee:

If it’s stapled to your resume. What you should have is a resume. That is your business card.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, and then, when you want to follow up, what are you asking for? Are you going to say, “Hey, can I give you a call or send you an email?” What’s going to help the recruiter and the candidate most in taking that next step? What do you recommend?

Serilda Summers-McGee:

I recommend not coming on too strong. That can be off-putting as well. I would say, if there’s a lingering question that was there, where you asked a question or made a comment or there was something that was stated but not completed, to follow up.

Say, “Hey, you asked me a question about x. I wanted to give you this information.” Or, “I asked you if there were any anticipated openings in this classification or this area of work. Please let me know if you find out that there is going to be a time where that is going to open. Or if there is a recruiter I should be working with in the city who is assigned to that wreck load. Just let me know.”

If you don’t hear back in a week, one follow up is always helpful. “Hey, just wanted to see if you got that message. I’m still very interested in being at the city. Thank you for your time. It was really great to meet with you. If you don’t know anything about this position, is there anyone you could direct me to?”

Their job is to be responsive. Not just to hiring managers but to the potential workforce. There’s a call to action there. They will be responsive.

Mac Prichard:

I love your emphasis on relationships because, as with any large organization, whether it’s in the public or private sector, sometimes when people are on the outside, it can seem pretty opaque when you’re trying to look on the inside.

Serilda Summers-McGee:

It is.

Mac Prichard:


Serilda Summers-McGee:

Even for a person who’s a seasoned HR vet. It’s like, “What’s going on in there? Why is this taking so long? That doesn’t make sense to me.” Because every ecosystem is different. Quite frankly, it’s not even consistent the way one hiring manager in one bureau versus another bureau, let’s say the bureau of development services versus water.

They go through their hiring processes differently. They have the right to do that. Each of their ecosystems is incredibly different. They build and design systems that meet their needs. Sometimes that frustrates people.

There are people who are highly relational dealing with parks and rec. There are people dealing with soil and minerals and, you know, waste. Those are night and day so it’s not going to be the same.

Mac Prichard:

Okay. Well, I want to talk more about this. I also want to talk about the application process itself and interviews.

We’re going to take a break. We’ll be back in just a moment. When we return, Serilda Summers-McGee will share more advice about how you can land a local government job

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Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking today with Serilda Summers-McGee. She’s the Chief Human Resources Officer of the City of Portland.

Serilda is also the author of Change The WorkGame: Building and Sustaining a Diverse Workforce. She’s joining us today in the Mac’s List studio in Portland.

Serilda, before the break we were talking about how to build relationships with recruiters and get yourself in front of people and follow up on requests for more information. Let’s talk about the application process itself.

Again, every sector has its own rules. Here’s one I hear about a lot in government, and I expect you do too. It’s really important, some people say, to use keywords in an application form for a local government job.

Talk about that Serilda.

Serilda Summers-McGee:

I can’t speak on behalf of all governments but I’ve worked for a few and I’ve worked with a few. What’s most important is not the keywords and the scrubbing for keywords. It’s mostly about that introductory page that you complete.

Keywords are not the important factor. It’s actually meeting the qualifications. If it says that you need five years experience or three years experience or two years experience and then it gives you a drop-down of checkboxes, “Do you have less than a year?” “One to three?” “Three to seven?” Whatever it is.

If you pick a box that does not meet the minimum qualification, you have been screened out. Full stop. You have been screened out. You do not meet the minimum quals so you have been screened out.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, that’s an important point, because as we both know, in the private sector, some hiring managers have the latitude to consider applications if the minimum requirement is five years from people who may have only three or four years.

That’s not the case in local government, is it?

Serilda Summers-McGee:

It’s not the case. I’m not saying… not to say that people don’t squeeze through. That’s not to say that there aren’t opportunities for you to skate around the system. By and large, you have to meet the minimum qualifications.

There are all these debates about, “Well, minimum,” somebody’s right now listening to this and saying, “Well, minimum qualifications don’t determine everything.” You’re absolutely right. In government, it becomes the base we use before determining all the additional soft skills that you should have.

The manager and HR, together in concert, have identified what those minimum qualifications are. Whether it’s degrees, whether it’s years of experience, or if it’s certifications. We have intentionally thought about what those qualifications are.

We place them on the website for you to check the box to determine if you meet or don’t meet. If you don’t, then you are removed. You are removed by the system. We don’t go through and review those folks.

There are times when people will make an error. They check the wrong boxes. “Why am I not being pursued for this position?” You can let us know about that. You can literally contact the human resources help desk and say, “Hey, I checked the wrong box on that. I meant to check this.”

That is something that we can reverse if you catch it fast enough. What we’re not doing is going through and reviewing your resume and then comparing it to the screened out questions that you completed to see if, “are they really screened out?”

We’re not going to do that. Those are the kinds of screenings where people get lost in the process. Maybe they had four years and eight months of experience so they say, “Well, I’m not quite at five years.” They don’t check the five- year box but they’ve got four years and eight months.

If I were them, I’d check the five-year box. They are, by the time we get ready to go through the interview process, they’ll probably be at five years. I’m not saying always. Sometimes it can take a while.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, so there’s some flexibility.

Serilda Summers-McGee:

There’s some flexibility, but again, you’re going to get a background check. Don’t lie and then get caught in a lie and then be screened out for a lie after the fact. You will be looked at as a liar and untrustworthy.

You have to make the determination of, is this reasonable? If you are four years and ten months, is it reasonable for you to say that you’re at five years? I believe it is.

I believe a hiring manager will believe it is. If you are at four years and one month, that’s a pretty extreme exaggeration. When we go through and do a background check, we are going to be able to determine that you don’t actually have the five years experience that you said you had.

Mac Prichard:

Bottom line, make sure that you pay attention to the minimum qualifications.

Serilda Summers-McGee:


Mac Prichard:

Yes, and if a college degree is required and you don’t have one, it’s probably… don’t bother to apply.

Serilda Summers-McGee:

Exactly. Yes.

Mac Prichard:


Serilda Summers-McGee:

If it is a requirement versus a preferred qualification.

Mac Prichard:

Good point. There is some flexibility with preferred qualifications.

Serilda Summers-McGee:

There is a great deal. You don’t have to have any of the preferred qualifications. You can apply for the job and have none of the preferred qualifications.

Mac Prichard:

A couple of other questions about applications.

Serilda Summers-McGee:


Mac Prichard:

They need to be complete, don’t they? If you’re asked to complete, say, three separate essays, you can’t just turn it two, can you?

Serilda Summers-McGee:

No, you can’t.

Mac Prichard:


Serilda Summers-McGee:

It speaks to your ability to follow rules. We explicitly asked you for three non-negotiable responses. You gave us one? You’re out.

Mac Prichard:

Application deadlines are huge, aren’t they?

Serilda Summers-McGee:

They are.

Mac Prichard:

It can be within…if it’s five o’clock, you can’t walk in at 5:01, can you?

Serilda Summers-McGee:

No, you can’t. It’s highly systematized so once it expires, and this happens every time because they usually expire at midnight, people will be completing a resume, last possible second. It’s like they’re in the application process.

It becomes 12:15 when they press submit and it doesn’t go through. Maybe you didn’t hear about it until that day. Maybe your mom called you and said, “You should apply to this job,” just forty-five minutes before it expired. It’s really hard to get yourself back into the process.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t try. You should definitely reach out to the recruiter, you should definitely reach out to HR saying, “I was in the system. Everything was ready to go.” Usually, we can check to see if you were in the system.

But it’s hard to get put back in. Particularly if it’s high volume.

Mac Prichard:

Good tips. Again, the public sector is like any system. It’s got its own rules and if you’re going to thrive in that system, you have to know how that system works and how to make it work for you.

Serilda Summers-McGee:

That’s exactly right.

Mac Prichard:

Let’s talk about people who want to make the switch from the private sector to local government. What tips do you have for people, Serilda, who may never have worked in local government before? They have terrific skills and experience.

How have you seen people make that change?

Serilda Summers-McGee:

The change is much easier for individual contributors. You were an engineer at a construction organization company and you want to come be an engineer in the water bureau or in BES, Environmental Services, or in BDS.

Let’s say you were an accountant in one and you want to come over to the other. That’s fine. What becomes, and there usually aren’t very many challenges associated with that. Where it becomes more complex is when you want to come into a leadership position in government having never worked in government.

People begin to have conversations about, will they understand the bureaucracy? Will they understand what it takes to get something pushed through our system? Knowing that they’re coming from a totally different system where things may move more swiftly.

Just like there are assumptions about government, there are assumptions about the for-profit sector. People who have worked in government most of their careers, and I’ve worked in both, believe that in the for-profit sector, everything goes quickly.

It’s supercharged. You have an idea, you just execute on the idea. Done. Nailed it. Then in government, we’re so sluggish, it might take a few months to get it off the ground. That’s not true. If you work in a huge conglomerate for profit organization, you have just as many hoops to jump through and layers of bureaucracy as the government does.

Those assumptions that we have about different sectors often times get in the way. What I tell people is, you should most certainly apply. I’ve jumped from both sides. Remember the for-profit side has assumptions about people in government and the government side has assumptions about people in for profit.

What you have to do is create is a narrative to help them see that you have anticipated the differences between the two. That you are now prepared as a result. You can do that in your resume, you can do that with respect to how you write in your cover letter, and you can do that with respect to how you write your resume.

A lot of people will write a resume and they’ll highlight the duties that they had. “I did this and then I did that and then I did that and I managed this.” That’s great. Thank you. What did you do in that job?

When it comes to the “what did you do” in that job, when crafting your resume, you can create a narrative that helps a government person can see from their purview. If you created a new system that helped to expedite a process from being twenty days to being eight days; if you created a workgroup to help solve a business solution that had been plaguing multiple divisions in the group, that’s great. We all have those problems. Not only do you tell what your job was, that can be… I’m not going to go through a resume tutorial. In the bullets, in the important real estate, you should be talking about the wins you had that are relevant to this new job.

Or the creativity you brought to the new job. That is how you can distinguish yourself from the pack of people who are not from government but also, simultaneously, help them see that you see yourself working in government.

That’s so important.   

Mac Prichard:

Talk about results, not responsibilities.

Serilda Summers-McGee:


Mac Prichard:

Well, we’ve got to bring it to a close but I do want to ask quickly one last question and that’s about competition. We all see these news stories, “600 people apply for five jobs.” There can be a lot of competition.

How do you see people move to the front of the line when they’re competing against dozens or even hundreds of other applicants?

Serilda Summers-McGee:

I still come back to relationships. If you want to supercharge your process and people’s awareness of your gifts and the value that you add to the team, you should be priming the pump in every job you have to build relationships. You never know where someone is going to be.

You can do proactive relationship building in the moment that you want something or you could have been doing it all along. I tell people, it’s important for you to cultivate relationships and to go to events and to meet people and to follow up when you have nothing to ask them for.

Then to wait, when everything’s on the line. When you’re about to get ready, when your job’s about to term and you need to come and find a new job. Now, you need to build a new relationship. That’s a tough place to put yourself into.

I tell folks pretty consistently, build the network today because that network today, when you don’t need a thing, is what’s going to serve you tomorrow when you may need the world from someone. You need them to come through for you.

Plus, do more for someone than you ask of them. Figure out how you can help support me and what I’m doing because one day, I may be able to support you. We don’t like to think about life as being quid pro quo but quite honestly, if you’ve never done something for someone, if you’ve never shown up for someone and now you’re coming to talk to me about a job and I’ve known you for a long time, the likelihood of me sticking my neck out for you goes down significantly.

You just want something for yourself. I would recommend, to stand out from the pack is to have a strong network. Cultivate that network. Whether you’re seventeen years old listening to this podcast or you’re fifty years old today.

Take someone for lunch. Take someone out to coffee. Hear their stories, hear what their goals are, share what your goals are, and continue to do that every single day. That is going to matter for you as you continue to ascend.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, great. Terrific advice, Serilda. Now, tell us, what’s next for you.

Serilda Summers-McGee:

What’s next for me? I always have a plan of what’s next for me.

Mac Prichard:

I know that about you.

Serilda Summers-McGee:

What’s next for me, right now is, I am having a blast at the City of Portland. I am having a blast working with the commissioners and the mayor, in particular, the mayor, and Tom Rinehart who’s the Chief Administrative Officer for the City of Portland.

We are doing really transformational work at the city right now. That fulfills my soul. I believe that human resources is the vehicle for change. No matter what the ecosystem is or what the organization is.

They are actually utilizing HR the way it was intended to be utilized. I’m excited to be a part of that journey.

When I leave the city, and I will leave the city; I’m not a lifer anywhere, quite honestly. When I leave the city, what I hope to do, what I plan to do, is to work full-time for myself doing a human resources consultancy firm.

Mac Prichard:

Well, I look forward to seeing the launch of your firm one day. I know people can connect with you in the meantime on LinkedIn. They can also learn more about your work at the City of Portland by visiting

Serilda, thanks for being on the program today.

Serilda Summers-McGee:

Thank you for having me, Mac. I appreciate it very much.

Mac Prichard:

It’s been a pleasure. Take care.

Well, I enjoyed that conversation with Serilda. I especially liked her emphasis on relationships. I think sometimes with large organizations, whether they’re in the private or public sector, people think processes count more than people. In other words, you’ve got to fill out the form the right way, turn it in by the certain date.

I thought that what Serilda brought home pretty clearly in our interview was that people matter. If you know you want to work at the City of Portland or other local governments, start building relationships with people now inside those organizations.

Those connections, whether they happen in person or online, can make a huge, huge difference. That’s why we’re proud to offer our free online course, How to Wow and Woo Employers Online.

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It shows you how to put your best foot forward online. Make connections and ultimately build relationships with your professional acquaintances and the employers you want to work for.

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Thank you for listening to today’s episode of Find Your Dream Job.

Join us next Wednesday. Our guest will be Vicki Lind. She’ll explain how to make good references great.

Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.