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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bridge the Generation Gap: As Millennials Enter the Workforce, Comm Center Managers Must Adapt

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, May 2010
Written by Bob Smith, APCO International's Director of Strategic Development

Read as many public safety publications as I do, and you've probably noticed the amount of attention folks are giving to the "next" generation of public safety professionals. Complaints include: "They're hard to get through to." "They have different agendas than we do." It's one challenge after another. Or is it?

Is it more likely that it's just the same thing those before us said when we were cutting our teeth in the business? The Buddy Holly generation, who said it about the Jimi Hendrix generation, who said it about the Metallica generation, who in turn said it about the Nirvana generation -- an ongoing cycle of trying to deal with the fresh young faces flooding the industry.

So why are we seeing so much attention on the subject now? For starters, this is the first time in history in which four generations are in the workplace at the same time -- not just in public safety, but everywhere. Traditionalists/veterans, baby boomers, generation X and the millennials are all working together. What does this mean to public safety?

Let's start with those labels. The labels and the dates assigned for each generation vary by source and they aren't specific to a month or day, but the most common breakdown is:

  • Traditionalists or veterans - born during the WWII era;
  • Baby boomers - born between WWII and 1965;
  • Generation X - born between 1965 and 1979;
  • Generation Y or the millennials - born between 1980 and 1999 or the turn of the millennium; and
  • Generation Z - born since 1999.

It's hard to avoid talking in generalizations when discussing generation gaps, so keep in mind that every person is unique, and comm center managers must approach employees as individuals.

Although many millennials have just entered the workforce, they will soon become the majority. As a generation, millennials are exceptionally tech-savvy. They are tuned to their own value in the job market, have limited loyalty to a particular employer and tend to insist on working in a stimulating job environment. These qualities can be viewed as liabilities, but let's look at them as opportunities.

As a former comm center director, I know that having an employee who is tech-savvy is always a good thing. Many agencies can't afford dedicated information technology staffs, and having a little technical know-how on staff can be of great assistance and help keep expenses down.

As for the other qualities - being especially turned into their own value in the job market, having limited loyalty to any particular employer and insisting on a stimulating job environment - all of these will ultimately benefit an entire agency. As employers consistently strive to meet these needs, they'll improve morale and create a positive work environment, thus improving their agencies overall. All of this can lead to higher recruitment and retention rates as employees start seeing more about an agency to appreciate (e.g., challenging work, adequate compensation and sufficient recognition for a job well done).

A bit more information about this up-and-coming workforce: They have a greater requirement for accountability and performance measurement. This means they'll give 100% effort 100% of the time if needed, but in return they'll require proportionate recognition. Exceptional work will require exceptional recognition - a reward that is more than a paycheck and on the same level as their performance.

This requires agencies to implement and maintain a formal employee recognition program. It can be as simple as thank you notes, gift cards or paid days off. However, it has to occur more often than once a year during National Public Safety Telecommunications Week. It has to be an ongoing part of agency operations. Reward employees once a year, and you'll get exceptional performance once a year. Reward and recognize them regularly all year long, and you'll get exceptional performance all year long.

Goals and objections will also need to be clear, and there must be an established benchmark for success. This will require a formalized employee performance evaluation program and well-maintained policies and procedures that are reviewed and updated regularly. An agency should be doing this anyway.

These are just a few examples of qualities and characteristics of the next generation of public safety communications professionals. Not all are challenges or obstacles that need to be overcome. In fact, in most cases if an agency prepares itself to meet the needs of this new workforce, it will ultimately improve overall operations and increase performance levels and morale for all generations on their staff.

The bottom line: Bridging the gap between senior leadership and a younger generation of employees is a task that must be faced now. As technology and the workforce of tomorrow grows and evolves, today's public safety leadership must use this diversity for the benefit of their agency and the communities they serve.

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