Over the next 20 years, and more importantly the next five years, we will see a huge rush of Baby Boomers and older Generation Xers exiting the workplace and entering into their retirement years. This organizational memory and labor exodus is especially true of the policing profession since many states have 20 year retirement systems for law enforcement and other public safety personnel.
The crisis is that there seems to be a relative lack of interested qualified applicants to fill those positions from almost any source – 2nd career people, Generation X and Generation Y. What is even more of a complication in the pool of potential employees known as Generation Y is that they 1) do not think much of becoming a police officer and 2) place huge demands on employers to accommodate demands for off-duty pursuits and life. Even if we can get by the perception problems, public safety has a weak recruiting pitch as it relates to this group since we have a 24 hour a day, 7 day a week, 365 days a year mission. Someone has to work shift work, weekends and holidays. These requirements do not play well to Gen Ys priorities for career choices.
Departments throughout the USA are experiencing this drought of qualified applicants now. It will only get worse as more and more officers and other public safety personnel retire or move on to other non-public safety careers. About 33% of current officers are in the Baby Boomer cohort. That is a huge number that cannot be filed by hiring more Gen Xers since there aren’t enough Gen Xers to go around. So, we must be flexible enough to go after Gen Yers and non-traditionals. To do that, we must change our recruiting and retention paradigms.
Put simply, Gen Y is just different. Gen Y is a group of individuals who value work-life balance, don’t care much for working holidays, weekends and shifts, and who have been given a steady diet of negative media coverage of police officers. Therefore, many Gen Ys have negative impressions of policing in general and police officers, specifically. Yet, Gen Y is the next generation of workers entering the job market and, therefore, our potential recruits. Gen Y is the only generation with the cohort size large enough to be able to successfully be integrated into the demand pool. However, public safety agencies and other government service agencies, at all levels, are in competition with NGOs and private sector employers for the best talent on the market.
We do have an ace up our sleeves, however; Gen Ys see themselves as game changers and social activists. The good news is that they are not just motivated by money. They want to make a difference and serve the greater good. This is where police departments and other public safety entities can really be focused and promote the “make a difference” aspect of our jobs.
We must change the way we recruit and retain police officers if we are to avert this looming public safety crisis. Agencies must move quicker in processing applicants, stay in touch with them as they move through the background process and include them in critical points throughout the hiring process.
Ideally, we need to pool resources among the various shareholders and players in the field to launch a national recruitment campaign aimed at encouraging people to become police officers. This could be a regionalized effort, but this is a national issue and one that could be addressed at that level. Pooling resources, targeting Gen Ys and non-traditionals, a national campaign focusing on “service” and “making a difference” by encouraging people to become police officers, anywhere, we may be able to improve the quality and quantity of our applicant pools across this nation. The alternative is a bleak one. I recall back in the 1970’s and 80’s when there was a shortage of teachers. A national campaign was successful in getting a whole generation interested in being educators. We could have the same or better outcome with a national campaign strategy.
Finally, departments must decide what recruiting and retention models works best for them. What are their strengths or weaknesses? Besides moving faster through the application and background processes, departments can capitalize on their “close to the people,” “making a difference,” having an impact,” and “service” aspects of our profession.