By Linda Willing
The largest problem in the coming year is how departments deal with young firefighters.
As I look back on 2013 in the fire service, I find that some of the biggest challenges currently facing fire departments involve looking into the near future.
How many times have I heard this when I travel around the country? "Kids these days, they're not like us. They're spoiled, entitled, lazy. They don't respect tradition. They're not willing to pay their dues. They're not serious about the job. They lack commitment and follow through."
I hear these complaints not only from older firefighters, but even recently from someone just 32 years old talking about those who are just a few years younger.
Of course, disdain for the younger generation is nothing new. Socrates said, "Children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders…" That was nearly 2,500 years ago.
Prior to World War II, those who later became known as the Greatest Generation were generally considered to be a bunch of slackers. Generational conflicts are a natural part of every culture.
But without question there are now generational issues that challenge and frustrate fire service members of all ages. Successfully dealing with these issues will determine how prepared any individual department, and the fire service as a whole, are for meeting the demands of the future.
You can't think about young people without thinking about technology. The youngest members of the workforce grew up not only with computers and smartphones, but also with social media, Twitter, endless apps, and the expectation of being connected 24/7.
The average person currently checks his or her cell phone between 110 to 150 times every day, and this number is much greater among younger people. A survey done by State Farm insurance indicates that nearly 50 percent of drivers between the ages of 18 to 29 are online while driving.
Certainly being tech savvy is a plus in a world that is increasingly driven by technology in all aspects. But there are dangers, and not just those associated with distracted driving.
Technology can become an addiction that diminishes other types of relationships, and misuse of social media has led to more than one firefighter losing their jobs (although this problem is not confined to the youngest generation). Inappropriate photos and comments posted on social media have undermined the reputations of individuals and the departments they work for.
2. Communication skills
Managers in all fields comment that young people in the workplace may lack well developed communication skills particularly related to conflict resolution or other types of difficult conversations. The prevalence of virtual communication has led to some people never developing real skills in face-to-face communication.
Fire departments need to recognize this disconnect and address it accordingly. Training in effective communication is crucial, but so is leading by example. Leaders must resist hiding behind technology and model good communication practices that they want others to follow. This means having that tough conversation in person, not texting a response.
3. Practical skills
Although the youngest generation at work may have tremendous knowledge and skills with computer technology, they may lack more practical skills — how to change a tire, how to use hand tools, how to fix real things that are broken.
This decline in practical skills is a source of frustration for older firefighters who may pride themselves on building their own houses or fixing their own cars.
Even though it is rare for people of any age to fix a car on their own in 2013, practical hands-on skills are still critical for success in the fire service. The fact is, in a world increasingly dependent on computer technologies, fewer people possess these skills.
For this reason, it is important that older firefighters make an effort to mentor and train younger workers in practical skills that will aid them in their ability to do their jobs.
4. Sense of time
Everything moves faster these days, and it seems that young people are always in a hurry. The newest generation in the workplace is impatient and not always willing to wait their turn. They believe in meritocracy vs. seniority, and want to feel that they are making a meaningful contribution in their work sooner rather than later.
For this reason, younger workers may be more likely to leave a job that is not fulfilling, on the assumption that they can always find another job. This is the world they have grown up in, but is very different from the expectations of most fire departments.
Younger workers need to develop more patience, but organizations also need to recognize that their abilities and talents must be used from the start, or they will risk losing their commitment in the long run.
5. Work/life balance
Younger workers are not workaholics like many of their older counterparts. They completely expect to be able to have a career, a rich family life, and time for personal interests. This expectation applies to both young men and women.
The desire for balance does not mean that younger workers are not serious about their jobs. It simply means that they define themselves by more than their position or how much money they make.
The result of this shift is already apparent in many organizations. Men as well as women are asking for leave time to care for children. Organizations that are not family-friendly will risk losing their best employees. Good policies in this area are a must for every fire department.
The youngest generation at work grew up getting lots of feedback and they expect it. In contrast, older firefighters often grew up with the idea that no news was good news, and thus any feedback had a negative connotation. For older workers, feedback was only necessary if someone was doing something wrong — if everything was good, there was no need to say anything.
This approach simply won't fly with younger workers. They need feedback and will not perform as well without it. For older workers, this need for feedback makes younger people seem both insecure and demanding.
But there is nothing inherently wrong with giving and receiving feedback. Quite the contrary — the ability to give and receive feedback is an essential leadership skill, but one frequently lacking among older firefighters.
Giving effective feedback is a skill and it can be learned. Training in this area will benefit every individual as well as the department as a whole.
When older firefighters evaluate the challenges associated with the newest generation at work, they often see only problems. The reality is that these young people are often better educated and better prepared for their jobs than many of their older counterparts.
They have gone to school and attained certifications. They are physically fit and committed to maintaining that fitness level. They bring passion, energy and new perspective to the emergency services.
And most importantly, for better or worse, young people are the future of the fire service. It is up to existing firefighters to stop complaining about them and start appreciating their strengths and potential. This means that new firefighters should be welcomed and included, not just tolerated or made into clones of existing members.
Older firefighters must act as mentors and guides, and organizations must take a proactive approach to training and preparedness. The future of the fire service depends on it.