Talkin’ ‘bout my generation: Recruiting millennials to the fire department
Thursday, March 09, 2017
In my last article, I detailed some of the characteristics that mark the millennial generation. Many of these characteristics — such as difficulty accepting orders or the desire to communicate electronically vs. face-to-face contact — don’t translate well to the fire station environment. But new recruits are the lifeblood of the organization; we can’t just avoid hiring young people.
So, what to do about this generational issue?
Set the Rules
First, set some boundaries. Don’t assume that your new recruits understand the command structure of a paramilitary environment like the fire service. Explain it, and how they’ll fit into that structure.
Ensure they read, train on and understand department policies and standard operating procedures (SOPs). Opinions have their place in the fire service, but for many things we do, there is a right way and a wrong way. New firefighters need to understand and embrace this.
Similarly, let them know there are consequences for conduct. Policies and SOPs are the organization’s playbook. Failure to learn and run the plays could leave them sitting on the bench. It’s only fair.
Some millennials have difficulty accepting traditional command structures. Dealing with this lies in understanding that they’re often less interested in challenging authority and more interested in knowing "what’s going on" and feeling like they are a part of decisions.
Clearly, recruits cannot be privy to all decisions in a department. But you can help them understand their respective rank, role and responsibilities and look for ways to get them involved — choosing the day’s PT activity, helping plan a community outreach event, taking photos (when appropriate) to share on the department’s social media pages.
Engage and Encourage
Setting the rules isn’t about making "recruit robots" — it’s about tapping into the unique strengths of your firefighter candidates. Many departments still have the old-school mentality to "wash out the weak" during probation.
That mindset can backfire with millennials, leading even high-quality candidates to disengage. Rather than focusing your energy on testing them, spend some time thinking how you can encourage them and make them step up and take initiative.
As with so many things in the fire service, company officers are critical in this effort. Pairing millennials with the salty captain who’s hell-bent on proving he’s the boss and won’t take any “lip” is recipe for failure.
Seek out company officers and other senior firefighters who are adept at playing the mentor — officers who truly get excited about helping new firefighters learn and who can provide steady, positive guidance.
Teamwork is also important. It’s easy for millennials to retreat into a corner, absorbed in electronic communication. But this doesn’t mean they all hate working on teams or prefer to be alone — it just means they know how to occupy themselves when they are alone.
Try to draw them out. Encourage cooking, eating, training and exercising together as a crew. Listen to their ideas and opinions. Keep them occupied — or they’ll occupy themselves with texts, games, or even outside employment.
In my last article, I mentioned that young firefighters often lack the mechanical skills needed for the job. But they can bring new skills instead.
The science buff might be able to help explain flow paths to the rest of the crew. The Apple devotee might step up to troubleshoot the department’s online learning system. The bookworm might get excited about researching a topic for a policy update (you do update your policies regularly, don’t you?).
If you can capitalize on their knowledge and interests, your department will benefit and the firefighters will feel more invested.
Firefighters of the Future
Over and over again I’ve read that millennials don’t want work to be work — that they expect to have fun at work. That sounds like a perfect fit with the fire service!
The job of a firefighter is one of command and sacrifice and duty, but let’s face it, it’s also fun. Few jobs provide the camaraderie and varied activities of the fire service.
So next time you welcome a new recruit to the crew, or evaluate potential firefighter candidates, push yourself to see beyond the challenges of millennial management — and start seeing the possibilities.
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