From the Archives: MPA Career Paths in Finance and Technology
“Why didn’t you get an MBA?” In popular culture, when we think about professionals with deep technical skills in finance or technology, we often think about an MBA. This is a reasonable question for many who serve the public in technical/professional roles such as financial or technology management. We can smile politely and explain that we chose an MPA because we love the public sector. We want our career to be a commitment to our community. We want to participate in public life. Careers built on finance and technology can be stable, can pay well, and can be an excellent way to serve the public. This article explores career opportunities in finance and technology for MPA graduates.
A Wide Range of Options
As a student in the Portland State MPA program (2005-2008), it was obvious to me that for my fellow graduates, a very wide range of career options would be available. In fact, MPA graduates range from those respected in government (David Petraeus, Director of the CIA) to those in controversial pop culture infotainment (Bill O’Reilly, Fox News TV Host).
For MPA students in the process of narrowing their career path, options worth considering include serving the public sector in finance and technology. These careers offer many benefits. The US Department of Labor reports that 40% of the top 20 occupations with the most job openings in the country involve finance or information technology. These positions are in demand, pay well, and are among the most stable opportunities available. In addition to the obvious direct benefits, jobs in finance and technology disciplines can be challenging and exciting. Financial management and information technology are pervasive, supporting all operations of an organization. Working as an IT Manager or Finance Manager in a government agency can be an exciting career track that allows full participation in the most interesting aspects of a public organization.
There are many options for MPA graduates in these disciplines. Some of those that you may consider include:
- Management Analysis and Consulting – Analysts and consultants often are called to help public sector organizations analyze operations, improve efficiency, or develop new capabilities. Jobs with prestigious firms can be competitive, but can offer rapid career growth and an opportunity to serve large organizations with big challenges early in your career.
- Audits – Performance audits, financial audits, and information technology audits are an important tool to foster transparency in government. Auditors can build technical skills in a particular discipline, and participate in analysis of some of the most important operations at many organizations.
- Compliance and Regulation – In a modern economy, government regulators in a variety of industries serve an important role in maintaining the quality of our lives. And demand for regulators is high. For example, the recent passage of the Dodd-Frank Act reforming bank oversight has created a significant need for consumer compliance regulators. While experience in a particular industry may be helpful, a broad understanding of government and public policy can be a great background to have.
- Financial Management – Managing the finances of an organization is much more than accounting for revenue and expenses. In fact, financial managers are frequently involved in important management and planning decisions, are responsible for internal controls and maintaining the public trust, and for budgets and borrowing. A number of entry-level jobs appropriate for MPA graduates with some technical skills are available in this discipline, making it one of the best options for students who aspire to jumpstart a career.
- Technology Project Management – Technology projects frequently fail, and can be high risk and costly endeavors. Many organizations are creating project management offices to professionalize the discipline of project management, and MPA graduates with skills in both technology and project management are in an excellent position to fill this need.
These are just some examples of the types of career options available to MPA students who can demonstrate technical competence in finance and technology. But Public Administration programs are often rooted in the social sciences, and unlike many MBA programs, may have limited offerings for finance and technology skill development.
Demonstrating Technical Competence
Current MPA students interested in pursuing a position in finance or technology should consider opportunities to gain those skills through elective courses and internship opportunities. Because finance and technology are some of the most in-demand skill sets, many organizations are willing to allow students opportunities to learn technical skills while on the job during an internship period.
During school and throughout a career, another important way to learn and demonstrate technical competence complementary to an MPA is through professional certifications. The most widely known professional certifications associated with a discipline and licensure, like the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designation, are widely respected and can be obtained by MPA graduates with additional coursework and professional experience. However, other professional certifications may be of interest to MPA graduates interested in building their technical skills as well. Some to consider are:
- Certified Government Financial Manager (CGFM) – Offered by the Association of Government Accountants (AGA), the CGFM credential focuses on financial management at federal, state and local levels, but is particularly popular with employees and consultants who serve the federal government. The requirements for the CGFM include a level of experience, as well as successful completion of three exams covering the government environment, government accounting, reporting, and budeting, and financial management and control.
- Certified Government Audit Professional (CGAP) – The CGAP credential is offered by the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA), and focuses on the skills used by public sector internal auditors, including those who perform performance audits, information technology audits, and financial audits. The certification exam covers fund accounting, grants, legislative oversight, confidentiality rights, and similar areas.
- Certified Information Privacy Professional/Government (CIPP/G) – Information technology, finance, and compliance professionals in government frequently need to demonstrate a knowledge of privacy regulations. This certification focuses on regulations that affect federal, state, and local agencies. The certification content addresses government privacy laws, regulations and policies.
- Project Management Professional (PMP) – The professionalization of project management, especially within the discipline of information technology, has been a major trend in the past decade. The PMP certification, offered by the Project Management Institute (PMI), is the credential that is most associated with this trend. The certification exam focuses on project initiation, planning, execution, and monitoring.
There are many opportunities for careers in the finance and technology disciplines serving the public. For MPA graduates, understanding what you want in a career and what opportunities are available to you may lead in that direction.