Are millennials really the problem – or lack of mentorship?

5 ways to mentor rookies of all ages and teach them the love of the job


By Jacob Johnson

Seventeen years ago, I walked out of the fire academy and into a department as a career firefighter and thought I was somebody. I had three years of volunteer experience and expected to be accepted immediately.

A month later I caught my first job and realized I was the true definition of a rookie. For starters, I did not pull the hose correctly. We were fighting a trailer fire, and my captain told me to grab a hook. The only hook left on the truck was a 12-foot hook. Grabbing that hook proved to my captain that I could not think outside the box and could not operate on my own. I was just a dumb rookie.

When I asked the captain how I had done, he replied simply, “You suck.” I went home completely defeated.

I returned to work my next shift and my captain looked at me and said, “Well, you didn’t quit, huh? Time to go to work.”

From that day forward, my captain set my career path down a bumpy but successful road. So now, when I hear the complaints about all the kids hitting the job today, it makes me wonder: What changed? Have the kids changed, or have we lost sight of our role as mentors?

The real problem: A lack of mentoring

It is easy for those of us who have earned our spot to sit back and say, “That rookie is stupid, send him home’’ or “that rookie isn’t worth my time, she doesn’t love the job.” But have we ever sat back and thought to ourselves that we were the problem? The words we chose to describe them – millennial, kid, idiot: Do we call them that because of their skill sets, or is it because we haven’t done our job teaching them those skills?

The lack of mentoring is what is killing the fire service today. When we were rookies, those old heads were saying the same thing about us. I promise. The difference is that they would complain – and then bring us to the floor and drill until we couldn’t see straight. They would make us smart, make us worth their time, make us a firefighter, and make us love the job.

There was no choice. They had a job to do as senior members, and they did it. That’s the tradition we MUST keep alive today. More than ever to be honest.

Teach the love of the job

Everything has changed in this world, and we must change, too. We must understand that some of these kids are coming to us with no real life experience. Some have never folded clothes, mowed the yard, worked a real job. That’s not our fault, but it is our problem; it is our job to teach them, grow them and show them the ropes.

I developed a “Teach the Love of the Job” test for myself to keep me motivated, keep me working hard and keep me mentoring other firefighters. It’s pretty simple:

  1. Make them proud
  2. Ask about their life
  3. Ask them how they learn
  4. Love them
  5. Do your job

Following this process, I have seen a difference in how I approach a rookie hitting the station. Let’s go through each item. (Want a copy of the 5-step process for mentoring rookies to tack up in your office? Fill out the form below to download a one-page checklist with tips.)

Make them proud: Right at the start of shift, after they introduce themselves and put their ice cream in the fridge and the cake on the counter, I make them get their helmet with that fresh wax job from delivery and the fresh orange probie front piece, and sit them on the front bumper. I tell them what it means to be a firefighter, to sit on the front bumper, the stories that have been told, the shoulders that have been leaned on and the gear that has used it as a resting place.

I make them sit tall and take a picture with their helmet. I then explain to them that they do not sit on that bumper again until the crew gives them the right to because they haven’t earned it yet. This starts the shift off right, gives them a piece of history to grab on to, and shows them right off the bat how much YOU love the job and the history of the job.

Ask about their life: After morning checkoffs of the rig, I sit them down in my office. I tell them about my life and my career – what got me to where I am and what it takes to be successful.

Next is their turn. I ask them about their life, what experiences they have, what hobbies they have, how many jobs have they had. This is very important. This is where I get involved in their life. You must learn your people, you must be engaged in them, you must be there physically, mentally, emotionally. You must show them that this is the best job in the world. While they talk, you should be writing, taking notes, remembering the high points of the conversation.

I will warn you that this step usually brings up some awkward moments, but if it’s important to that rookie, then it’s important to you. Ask them for their birthday, their family members’ birthdays (partner, kids), ask them for an emergency contact number for you to have.

The best thing is that you are doing all these things, and that kid just thinks it’s because you’re the boss, but that’s not true, is it? No, it’s not! What you’re doing is setting their foundation to allow them to love the job and be engaged. It is key to their success. Without taking the time to understand their back story, you do not truly know what you have to work with.

Ask them how they learn: This is one of the most crucial parts. This is what will make that kid succeed or fail. Yes, there are certain aspects of the job that you can only teach one way, but if you know how they learn, then you can adapt that style to the one way of teaching a certain aspect. What gets their clock ticking – hands on, PowerPoint, reading, something else? If you can pass on the knowledge in a way they can pick up, then they will have a better chance to succeed.

Share your expectations. Print them on a piece of paper and have them sign at the bottom. This gives them that sense of realness, that point of the first morning where it hits them, “Wow, I am a firefighter. I have achieved my first goal of getting a job.” They need that moment. It’s important.

After you see them staring off for a good 5 seconds, thinking about all this, call them back to earth and ask them for their expectations of you. Yes, I know, they won’t have a clue. That’s perfect! They will say something like, “I just want to learn” or my favorite, “I just want to become a good firefighter.” Bingo, you have made them engaged, because they gave you something.

Love them: Two words that can be the hardest thing to do. These kids will piss you off, run you ragged, make you want to quit, or make you want to fire them. Just remember, you were them once, too. You did all those things to your senior officer.

My guy was Captain Mike Lane, aka “Pops.” He was the hardest of them all – and the scariest. He ran me into the ground, but he loved me, and that motivated me more than anything. He got engaged in my life and made me a better man.

These kids don’t need their hands held, but they do need to hear the words “good job,” “I’m proud of you,” “I love ya, kid,” etc. They need some style of love to keep them going and keep them grinding for the finish line.

Find something they like and dive into it. Go the extra mile. For me, I had a kid walk into the station in 2016. Good kid but a terrible background and life growing up on the streets. During my phases, I learned a few things about him. He had never heard the words, “I’m proud of you” or “I love you.” He loved music, everything about it, from the words to the beats.

Can you imagine the look on his face, after four tours of being drilled all day and night sometimes, when I went to him and said, “Good work, kid, I’m proud of ya.” You would have thought I was Jesus himself! He smiled from ear to ear, and I heard a sniffle or two as we were picking up.

As the training went on, I dove into music. Rap music. Woah! This was tough! I was raised on 70s and 80s country. I knew nothing about it. What I did know, though, was I could not keep a solid relationship with this kid by just saying I’m proud of you. I needed something more, something on an emotional level. So I learned about rap music. Yup, I started questioning him about it and learning, had him set my speaker levels in my truck, listened to new songs, and sent them to him, too. He was shocked – completely taken aback that I dove into his life this much.

To this day, that kid is still a firefighter, still growing and still talks to me daily, all because I took the time to invest in him.

Do your job: These kids depend on us. Their families depend on us. The success of their career depends on us. We have a job to do as senior firefighters, so DO YOUR DAMN JOB.

Be the cream of the crop. If these kids don’t want to love the job, then make them love it. Show them how to love it. Get invested in them so they get invested in the job. It’s the only way.

Every kid is owed the opportunity to have a love affair with the job.

Give them their chance, let them shoot their shot, and show them the way!

About the Author

Jacob Johnson is a battalion chief with the City of Pearland, Texas. He began his fire service career with the Katy (Texas) Volunteer Fire Department in 2000, then completed EMT school and later became a career member of the Katy Fire Department. After two years, he transferred to the Pearland Fire Department. Johnson teaches at the Cy-Fair College Fire Academy, and previously taught at TEEX and the Gary A Tilton Rescue School.

Want a copy of the 5-step process for mentoring rookies to tack up in your office? Fill out the form below to download a one-page checklist with tips.

5 ways to mentor rookies and teach them the love of the job

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