Why Longevity (in a Job!) is Good
Are people staying in their jobs for shorter periods of time? Not according to the Department of Labor Statistics reports, which say that tenures in jobs actually increased slightly during the past decade. But it is true that younger workers (25 to 44 years old) only have a median tenure of about 5 years, compared to older workers (46 and up), whose median tenure is 8 to 10 years.
And although those employed in the public sector tend to stay longer than those in the private sector, I still seem to be a statistical outlier. I’ve stayed in my job for 25 years (wow, that’s a long time!). Here’s why you should think about staying in your job.
First of all, the job I have now looks nothing like the job I began in 1992. Although the LA County Arts Commission was established in 1947, it didn’t change much for its first 45 years. It was basically a two person agency with a budget under $900,000, which distributed a few grants, produced a holiday themed community variety show, and sponsored a few free concerts that were funded by the musicians union. But the arts scene in Los Angeles up to this point was still nascent and really didn’t begin to take off until the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, often seen as the catalyst for LA’s cultural explosion. So there was an enormous opportunity for a regional local arts agency (us!) to surf the cultural wave, and a tremendous need for regional coordination of cultural infrastructure. This was a great adventure and meant that my job changed every few years as new programs and staff were added. Now I would categorize us as a full service local arts agency, with robust funding; technical assistance, communications, and research; public art and arts education programs.
So here’s what I’ve learned during the long ride:
The longer you’re in charge, the more people you get to choose for your team and the more time you have to educate your authorizers, whether that means adding board members or orienting political stakeholders. You have a wonderful opportunity to mentor your team and watch them grow. You get to shape your world, both from the bottom up and top down.
Long-term tenure builds long-term trust. You develop a shorthand with people you work with on projects over time. Sometimes your eyes just lock across the conference table and the deal is done. Your rolodex (remember them?) is your strongest tool. You know just who to call to get the impediment removed. I just checked my contacts and there are more than 2,500 entries—that’s real people I actually work with.
Sometimes great program ideas have to wait for the political stars to align. I first started working on getting both a public and private requirement for civic art in 1998(!). In 2000 both went down in flames in a public meeting. I was able to get the critical vote needed for the public civic art policy in 2004 when a staff member changed. But it wasn’t until this year that the private developer requirement finally moved forward. That’s 19 years, but worth it as this ordinance will generate another $2 to $3 million a year for cultural services.
Tenure tests your adaptability. Our arts education initiative is celebrating 15 years of non-stop momentum this year, and while the goal of quality arts education for every one of the 1.5 million students in public schools in LA County hasn’t wavered, the ever-changing landscape of arts education policy has forced us to constantly tack. When the state implemented line items for arts education for school districts, we were ready to take full advantage of this great opportunity; when the line items went away and policy shifted to local control funding formulas, we were there. So even within a long-standing initiative, strategies are always evolving.
You also get to see the fruit of your labors. That’s super satisfying. Twenty-five years is about the same time it takes to see a baby walk across the stage at a graduate school commencement. A proud moment! Helming a public local arts agency, particularly one within a large governmental structure like Los Angeles County, can make change seem like trying to turn the Queen Mary: it feels sloooow. But every few years or so when you look up at the horizon to plan for the future, you realize you’ve turned the ship 180 degrees and you’re steaming in an excitingly new direction.
Next up: Why Leaving a Job Can Be Great
Laura Zucker is the recipient of Americans for the Arts’ 2017 Selina Roberts Ottum Award. Presented jointly by Americans for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts since 1990, the award recognizes an individual working in arts management who has made a meaningful contribution to his or her local community and who exemplifies extraordinary leadership qualities. Zucker is a member of Americans for the Arts.