The New Public Health Generation: A Sales Pitch for Governmental Public Health

During my fellowship year at the de Beaumont Foundation, I have spent my time discovering the functions, challenges, and value of governmental public health, as well as considering whether health departments are my next career move. I’m the first to admit that working for the government, especially state or local health departments, doesn’t have the exciting, magnetic pull of some of the interesting entry level positions at policy advocacy groups, consulting firms, and innovative non-profits.

Luckily, I had the chance to explore my hesitations about governmental public health with Dr. Mike Fraser, the Executive Director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) . I sat down with him to ask some questions about the field and future workforce trends.

As the Executive Director of ASTHO, Dr. Fraser represents and supports state health officials across the country. My big question for Dr. Fraser was this: “Why, with such an uncertain financial, political future, should millennials join the governmental public health workforce?” Dr. Fraser reframed the question as a matter of responsibility and social good. If we want to live in a society where people are able to live, work, play, and raise families in healthy environments, government is the best entity to bear the responsibility of that ideal. There is no one else. The way Dr. Fraser puts it, government is a natural place for young people who believe in the common good, which is a compelling motivation for millennials like myself.

When I asked about future trends in public health, Dr. Fraser described his work with state health agencies as making the “invisible, visible,” because public departments are the hidden connective tissue that make our communities livable, from disease surveillance and vaccinations, to progressive improvements in transportation, housing, and food access. We eat, travel, and interact with other people every day without considering the public health departments that make our lives healthy and safe. Dr. Fraser’s, and ASTHO’s, role is to strengthen the voice of governmental public health and change the public perception of health.  Ideally, when people think about ‘health’, they will think less about pills and procedures and more about all the things that make us truly healthy: clean air, economic opportunities, access to healthy foods, safe outdoor space, and more. These are the things that governmental public health takes responsibility for creating, the invisible work that should become visible so that public health has the credibility and investment to do our job. Taking this perspective, I am excited to potentially join agencies that take more responsibility for making people’s lives better.

There is work to be done in public health in America and millennials have the energy, ingenuity, and passion to do it. However, governmental public health has a reputation for bureaucracy, low-paying jobs, and slow hiring processes that discourage young workers. Nevertheless, these less-than-appealing qualities can be mitigated by the powerful draw that meaningful work with a large social impact has on young workers.

Based on my time at the de Beaumont Foundation, and my conversation with Dr. Fraser, I have a sales pitch. Millennials should work in governmental public health agencies because they:

  • Are increasingly strategic in tackling public health problems at their roots and rebalancing the scales of prevention vs. treatment
  • Are working more with other sectors, both cross-jurisdictional in government and with the business, nonprofit, and philanthropy sectors
  • Need passionate people working on the inside
  • Are a place for people who believe in the common good and are passionate about social change and healthy communities

Dr. Fraser mentioned outright that he doesn’t believe in labeling the different generations, due to inaccurate stereotypes. He thinks that a person’s interests and passions come from their lived experiences- and I couldn’t agree more. My own experiences have shown me that the country needs a stronger, vocal, and visible governmental public health, which means that governmental public health needs more young professionals to join up. I haven’t quite made up my mind if I will end up in governmental public health, but I am much more interested than before.

***

This year I am blogging about my experience as a fellow and what it means for the millennial generation to join and change the public health landscape. I will grapple with the changing public health workforce, interview leaders in and out of the field, and discuss the future of public health as my generation sees it. Follow along!

Written by Lizzie Corcoran

Lizzie is the 2017-2018 ASPPH Philanthropy Fellow at the de Beaumont Foundation.