Q&A with Shelby Kerns, Executive Director, National Association of State Budget Officers
In this Stories from the Field series, Natalie Cohen, senior fellow, Milken Institute Center for Financial Markets, interviews leaders in the field of public finance to trace their career paths and identify innovative accomplishments from which others can learn. We hope our readers and listeners—whether new to the field or experienced and seeking to advance their public finance careers—will learn more about the area and find inspiration from their innovation.
Shelby Kerns has worked in many roles in the state of Idaho, including in real estate, agriculture, and the Governor’s Office Division of Financial Management. She has also taught economics at the College of Western Idaho and was the deputy director of the state’s Department of Labor. These experiences seem to be a perfect prelude to becoming the executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO).
While Kerns calls her career path “accidental,” it was driven by a unifying interest in public policy and human behavior. How each state directs its resources ultimately shapes the country’s direction and sheds light on society’s values.
Kerns began her career with the Idaho Wool Growers’ Association soon after college. That gave her a chance to learn about organizing conferences, managing communications, and engaging in policy advocacy. These are valuable skills, whatever the context in the government or private sector. She then worked for the Idaho Association of Realtors, where she learned how a large association advocates for its members at the local and national levels.
She also had the opportunity with the Association of Realtors to spend a month in Nigeria with a team of young professionals to learn and share ideas. Soon after she returned from Nigeria, a position opened at the Idaho Department of Agriculture as an international trade specialist. Members of the department attend national and international trade shows to raise awareness of Idaho’s export products and work to remove any roadblocks to trade for Idaho’s producers.
Further work with the Idaho Rural Partnership gave Kerns an appreciation for issues facing smaller rural communities and the opportunity to meet and network with the partnership’s board of directors and members from rural communities.
Engaging with trade associations enabled Kerns to build a network of people she could call on later in her career to help with projects or offer advice. She became an adjunct faculty member in economics at the College of Western Idaho. She later moved into the Governor’s Office Division of Financial Management and advanced to become budget bureau chief. She also served as deputy director of the Idaho Department of Labor.
Each of these experiences, while they might have seemed “accidental,” allowed Kerns to build relationships and add skills to her career toolbox. When the executive director’s position at NASBO opened up, Kern’s skill set was a perfect fit. As she mentions in the video, she never knew there were budget offices for each state as well as a national organization that served the state budget officers. She recommends that thinking about your career in terms of building skills rather than attaining a position or title will serve you well. Staying open to opportunities that put those skills to work is also critical. Kerns advises that you never know what might come your way if you stay curious and open.