Talkin’ ‘bout my generation: Dealing with millennials in the fire department
Thursday, March 02, 2017
I've seen a lot of new recruits come through the training center over the past several years. Although I always get excited about welcoming new recruits, the new generation seems to present some unique challenges and training needs.
Nothing against them; it's more of a sign of the times. Do you recognize any of these characteristics?
Some recruits have a difficult time accepting orders from a male authority figure. There are a lot of possible contributing factors, but one commonality I've seen is that many of these firefighters grew up without a strong male parental figure. The men who were around were often not interested in them, and in some cases actually degraded or demeaned them more than encouraged or supported them.
Although the fire service is making strides in diversity, let's face it, it's still a male-dominated world. Being uncomfortable taking orders from a male supervisor can create some challenges.
Then there's the changing skill set. Since its inception, the fire service has attracted people with strong mechanical skills and experience. But today's new firefighters are just as likely to have grown up in apartments or condominiums where house repairs and yard work were provided for them.
And while you and I may have spent our summers tinkering with cars, today's vehicles don't invite the experimentation that can lead to vehicle repair skills that prove valuable in the fire station. Instead, special tools and certifications are required to repair most cars today.
I'm certainly not the first to note that millennials avoid face-to-face conversation and even eye contact. With new smartphones coming out every six months that allow people to text, Snapchat, share photos and message one another on social media, it's not a surprise that traditional social skills are on the blink. I've heard recruits request to "work alone" or have separate sleeping or recreation rooms where they can be alone.
Which brings me to teamwork. Millennials often grew up playing in sports leagues where everyone got a ribbon or a trophy, even when they lost. It's difficult for a supervisor to correct, much less discipline, someone with this mentality. After all, we're all winners, right?
Now you're cookin'! Or not? When every corner in town is home to a different fast food place, who cooks anymore? Even grocery stores boast a full range of prepared meals for the hungry man, the vegans or the special "foodie" who doesn't like this or that.
But ask any fire service veteran with 10-15 years on the job, and they will tell you some of the best times in the fire station were at the kitchen table. World issues debated, family problems solved, belly laughs and tears — all are found at the firehouse kitchen table, but this sacred space is quickly diminishing in importance with the new generation.
We're all officers! Millennials often grew up with parents who stressed friendship rather than authority, treating their children as equals at an early age. Of course, there are benefits to this, but it can create problems in a paramilitary environment like the fire service. Firefighters from this new generation often think they should be included in influential decisions, no matter their position or title.
And then there's what they want out of the job. We talk about union negotiations and meet and confer at the department level, but today's firefighters expect such negotiations to take place at the individual level.
They want to work less, form meaningful connections, be creatively fulfilled. Work is not a simple exchange of time for money to many millennials — and this can create complications in the fire station when apparatus need to be cleaned and equipment inspected.
Now don't get me wrong — these characteristics don't apply to all millennial firefighters. But if you're like me, you'll recognize many of these traits in the younger generation.
How do we work together in this changing work environment? That's a topic for another article.
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