The fire service is a top career path for young people – they just don’t know it
A new study ranks fire supervision as a prime option, so how do we make this connection for the younger members of our communities?
A recent joint study by Gallup and Amazon has rated First-Line Supervisors of Fire Fighting and Prevention Workers as the top career path for young people without a college degree.
The study, called the Careers of the Future Index (CFI), ranks careers for different education levels based on data on income potential, job growth, job vacancies per job-seeker and resistance to automation. The study conveys the economic strengths and weaknesses of various career paths, and highlights careers that both pay well and are likely to be available to applicants now and in the future.
Based on these criteria, a fire service career ranked first in its category, tied with Cardiovascular Technologists and Technicians.
Send the right message – and members
While this sounds like good news for both the fire service and young job-seekers, the study also highlights a disconnect between expectations and reality. For example, the study found that 35% of 15-year-olds aspire to careers like athletes and actors, while overlooking higher scoring careers.
Most people who choose to work as firefighters know what a great job it can be, and that it is a fulfilling career path. How can the fire service work harder to get this information out to the next generation?
Many fire departments have had youth outreach programs in place for a long time, and these programs have great value. Successful outreach programs include fire department-sponsored Explorer posts, girls’ fire camps, partnerships with community groups, and high school and college-aged internships, to name a few. In addition, fire departments may participate in singular events such as career days or job fairs that seek to interest new young people in an emergency services career.
This is all good – but it may not be enough. Two factors that may be lacking in these efforts are relatable messaging and one-on-one follow up.
Who is taking the message to Career Day? Is it a 20-something firefighter with only a couple years on the job, or (as is true in many cases) is it an older firefighter with seniority? The latter representative surely has more experience and acquired knowledge about the job to share. But the fact is, if firefighters at these events don’t look anything like the young people they hope to recruit, their efforts will be less effective. The old line that “you have to see it to be it” may feel trite, but it is still true. If young people only see firefighters who are clearly different from themselves based on age/generation, race/ethnicity or gender, it will be harder for them to imagine themselves in that same role.
For this reason, it is important to get diverse, young department members involved in outreach programs, not just as tokens, but as active and contributing members.
Likewise, there can be a disconnect based on messaging and communication methods. Most young people live on their phones, through the internet and social media, but many fire departments have yet to create inviting and accessible digital access to their organizations. Again, this is where involving newer, often young members can help.
That being said, be careful. It may be tempting to go all-in with digital platforms for recruitment and outreach, but even in 2023, there is still nothing like a personal connection. I have interviewed many fire service leaders who came from traditionally underrepresented groups, and most of them have a similar story: They were unsure or unaware of the potential of a fire service career until they connected with someone who took a personal interest in them and helped to guide them through the process of joining the department. Even decades later, these individuals can name the person who filled that role.
Show them a promising career option
The Gallup/Amazon study states: “Millions of American students face an important decision every year – what career do they want to pursue and what's the best way to get there? Young adults are overlooking promising career options.”
Firefighters know they have a great job. It’s a vocation that provides security and fulfillment even as it demands its members give their all to mitigate and prevent harm in the community. But firefighters also have the responsibility to build the future of their organizations through intentional outreach and inclusion of the next generation.
Data shows that opportunities exist. Firefighters have an obligation to ensure that these opportunities are known and available to all members of the community.