Public Safety Hiring: The Perfect Storm

It’s been a tough couple of years with this economy. Many law enforcement agencies have vacancies waiting to be filled. Recruitment, selection and training – functions that have been idle—will soon need to be dusted off. In fact, we’re going to have to do more than dust off old skills if we are to survive what looms ahead. The private sector will see improvement long before tax dollars trickle down to our public sector budgets. Let’s take a look at how this overlap of good times/bad times will affect us. Below is a set of factors that will place our agencies directly in the line of a perfect storm that will affect our ability to hire and retain good officers, and in some cases, even survive the storm itself.

Factor 1 – Entry-level vacancies

No surprise here. Through attrition or outright layoffs, it is common today to have vacancies at least at the entry level of our organizations. It’s rare today to see a police agency that is staffed to its authorized strength. These are the obvious vacancies that we see and hear of every day. But there are more.

Factor 2 – Deferred retirements

Unless your post-career plans were to fish or explore hobbies, only a fool would retire from a secure public sector job into this economy. Those who had hoped to retire and begin new careers, seek a part time job or be active professionally have opted to defer retirement and wait for opportunities that only an improved economy will bring. Until then, they remain in the job. Our hiring challenge will not only be to fill our existing vacancies (see Factor #1), but also to fill the sudden vacancies caused when those who have deferred retirement, do retire. Warning: You don’t want to be standing in the door when these people decide it’s time to hit the road.

Factor 3 – Generation Y

For several years, our hiring pool has consisted mostly of Generation Y (millennial) people. If all we hear is true, they will be less likely to remain on the job for 20 to 25 years, as past generations did. They will enjoy multiple careers in both the public and private sector; they will stay with our agencies for a shorter time; and they will seek jobs that offer freedom to adjust a work schedule around family and activities. When the private sector begins to grow their organizations and ramp up hiring, our Generation Y employees will look fondly at work environments that are less structured than police agencies. The public sector has been able to keep these traits at bay, in part, because of the design of our pensions (see Factor#4).

Factor 4 – Pension changes

It has been difficult these past few years for states and/or municipalities to maintain the solvency of their public safety retirement funds. In order to deal with this crisis, governments are trending toward two options, both of which will affect our agencies in different ways. First, many states are modifying the pension package for employees who are not yet retired. Increased contributions, older retirement dates and increased penalties for early retirement, etc. As states begin to enact these changes, employees who would have stayed longer will often retire earlier in order to secure a version of pension that may not be available down the road. Second, our pensions have little portability built in. Our Minnesota public safety pensions allow officers to move, but only to another government agency within the state if they are to bring their pension with them. This model is coercive. Frankly, it is one reason that Generation Y employees (see Factor #3) have remained loyal to our public safety employment. But given the economy, many states are moving to a 401K-style pension. When you add a pension system that is truly portable to the nomadic careers of Generation Y (see Factor #3), you have a five- to ten-year officer. This will not be our norm, but it will be out there. As stated above, we will need to fill not only our current vacancies, but also those caused by employees at all levels of our organizations. Recruitment selection and hiring have been on the back burner for a couple of years, but our need for those functions will soon become urgent. But let’s consider one more factor.

Factor #5 – Timing is everything

We are all going to be looking for quality employees at the same time. There will be only so many quality candidates out there, and chances are they will all not line up outside your particular door. Warning: How does an agency remain fully staffed at a time when ruthless competition for quality candidates exists? Do we go understaffed until we get whom we want or do we lower standards to fill our vacancies? Agencies that cannot adapt will fail. It is already happening. How do you survive? You start by taking a critical look at your agency, asking what we have to change to become an agency that attracts today’s workforce. Which of our organizational systems and customs are in conflict with their interests? How do we retain the quality employees we currently have? How do we become more efficient? What functions can we civilianize or outsource? We have fought off many of these suggestions for efficiencies and organizational change in the past, but this economy is a game changer. We are not talking style anymore; this is survival.