Michael Jenkins, Jr., recent project officer with HRSA who is now working with SAMHSA, talked with us about why he chose a career in public health and what young professionals in the field need to succeed long-term from his perspective. Michael has more than eight years of experience working on federal, state, and local public health programs and initiatives, including work as an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) Program Evaluation Consultant at the Army Public Health Center where he was responsible for enhancing the development and execution of the Portfolio Capabilities Assessment and governance processes that assessed the effectiveness, quality, efficiency, and performance of public health programs across the Army enterprise. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Why did you choose a career in public health?
I believe public health chose me. I needed an internship in undergrad as a part of my psychology curriculum and just happened to ask my professor, Dr. Waldstein, if I could work with her. She had a study examining glycosylated hemoglobin and cognitive function in African Americans that really piqued my interest. From that study, I learned a great deal about population health and epidemiology, and it helped me gain a better understanding of structural and racial inequities in public health. This study and other research that I have been a part during my academic career fortified my desired to make an impact in this field.
Looking back, what were the most important skills or resources you needed when you began your career? How difficult was it for you to find training and support to build those skills or obtain those resources?
My first position out of graduate school was as a consultant epidemiologist with a local health department and school system. Some of the most important skills I needed were a strong understanding of statistical concepts, strong research skills, critical thinking skills, strong communication skills, attention to detail, and proficiency with numerical analysis software. Some of the resources I required were access to statistical software packages, access to research databases and support from a statistician to validate my statistical findings.
I did not find it hard to obtain the skills, as I had been developing those skills my entire academic career, and my graduate education prepared me well to enter the workforce. Conversely, finding the resources proved challenging in some cases due to a lack of adequate funding, availability of software licensing, and lack of appropriate staff. It is well-known that funding and staffing are challenging for local health departments and school systems, and in my case, there was no exception. Nonetheless, you find a way to make do with what you have, and that is exactly what I did. However, we must continue to endeavor to find more sustainable ways of fully staffing and funding this necessary work.
What types of training and support have been most beneficial for you during your career thus far?
During my career, I have been afforded the opportunity to participate in a variety of trainings and continuing education courses that have helped reinforce knowledge and skills. I have appreciated participating in conferences, trainings, and events offered by NACCHO, ASTHO, NNPHI, PHF, deBeaumont, CDC, and several other organizations. At HRSA, we have the HRSA Learning Institute that offers a litany of courses to help refresh skills or learn new ones.
In addition, I have had supportive leadership that have always encouraged me to stay engaged in learning and pushed me to keeping moving forward. All of these things have propelled me to where I am today.
What are the most challenging issues you have faced thus far in your career? How easy or difficult has it been to find training or support to deal with those issues?
The most challenging issues for me have been being able to find individuals with the skillset I need to assist in certain aspects of my job, and getting around red tape to actually do the work. For instance, when I needed a statistician, in a few of my positions, there was not a dedicated person in that role. In addition, when I attempted to solve a problem and had the solution in sight, there has been, in some cases, red tape that has prevented a swift resolution.
Finding support to deal with these issues is challenging at times because you cannot just magically place a person in a position or eliminate the rules and guidelines that prevent certain actions. Thus, in many cases, you have to figure it out with the resources you have, and at times I had to research how to complete the task, which in the long run I would say has served me well.
What advice would you give other emerging public health professionals and leaders about how to develop the skills they need to be successful?
The first thing I would tell an emerging public health professional is to pay close attention to what you are learning during your academic career, take good notes, and keep them! I also encourage individuals to form a network of mentors and colleagues that you can converse with to find new information or just talk through something that you are working on or contemplating.
In my career, a ton of my learning has come through peer learning and simply talking through an issue. Also, take advantage of all the free seminars, conferences, events, and trainings that are offered through your organization or professional associations. Lastly, never stop seeking knowledge.
What advice would you give established public health professionals and leaders about how to help you and your peers develop the skills they need to be successful?
Mentor, mentor, mentor, and provide opportunity. My peers and I can acquire all the academic knowledge that we want, but nothing is greater than the application of that knowledge. We need established professionals to talk with us and tell their stories, share the successes and pitfalls to avoid, and to offer opportunities for us learn and work at your organizations.
I have seen too many of my graduate school peers not be as successful as they can be because they had no guidance and no opportunity. Most organizations are looking for this particular set of skills, but individuals will never be able to acquire skills if they are not given the opportunity to work and learn those skills.
What does the new generation of public health leaders bring to the field? How does the field best take advantage of your strengths and skills?
The new generation of public health leaders brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the field. We have individuals from all disciplines at varying stages in life now entering the public health realm. This affords us a diversity of new knowledge and ideas. I believe the greatest asset that this generation brings is innovation.
Many of us in the field will tell you that in many ways the public health field has been siloed, but there has been an influx of new ideas, collaboration, and partnership that has burgeoned in the field in recent years due to the development of new public health leaders. The field should continue to embrace these new ideas and skills, and allow them to flourish.
We have seen with the emergence of ideologies like “Public Health 3.0” and others that we must continue to grow and evolve. Allowing the new generation to obtain leadership positions, be at the table in strategic planning meetings, and be integral in the discussions of the future of public health within organizations, will be the best utilization of their strengths, skillset, and knowledge.
What needs to happen to keep you engaged and invested in public health for the long-term?
I have dedicated my career to this work, thus I remain engaged and invested in public health for the long-term. However, I believe that in order for our work to endure long-term success, we must continue to work to eliminate silos, advocate for the work and secure continued funding.
As much as we have made progress, we still have some ways to go. We do not work as effectively as we can in certain aspects of the field, and we sometimes see duplication of efforts which curtails the impact of the work. We also continue to see that our work in some cases is hindered by bureaucratic processes that disrupt momentum. We must be better at mitigating these issues and reach farther across the aisle to gain partnership and support from other disciplines.