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4 things millennials want from their correctional career

If correctional facilities maintain business as usual, agencies will struggle to find the next generation of COs

“The workplace has become a psychological battlefield and the millennials have the upper hand, because they are tech savvy, with every gadget imaginable almost becoming an extension of their bodies. They multitask, talk, walk, listen, and type and text. And their priorities are simple: They come first.” – Morley Safer, 60 Minutes correspondent

My colleague and I were walking to lunch the other day when the discussion about retirement came up. We are both in very different stages of our careers and have taken different paths to get to where we are today. My colleague – who is 18 years older than me – is a 23-year law enforcement veteran who has worked for five different agencies.

I, on the other hand, am a true millennial (or that’s how they describe me in the office). Even though I am a millennial, I have reached my 10th year in the criminal justice profession and, by all standards, am a dedicated professional.

A recruiting sign for the Arkansas Department of Correction greets visitors to the Cummins Unit prison near Varner, Arkansas, which was scheduled to hold executions Thursday, April 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Kelly P. Kissel)
A recruiting sign for the Arkansas Department of Correction greets visitors to the Cummins Unit prison near Varner, Arkansas, which was scheduled to hold executions Thursday, April 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Kelly P. Kissel)

The interesting part of our conversation is that we are both shooting for the same retirement time frame.

You might be wondering how that is possible or why I would want to retire that early. Well, for most millennials, it’s not that we don’t like our chosen career path, but the idea of living a free lifestyle of our choosing is much more appealing than working long hours and getting scrutinized for every decision we make.

We can pick and choose when and where we work and use our skills to help the most people in the way we see fit. We enjoy living our life more than we enjoy spending all our time cranking out long reports at 3 a.m. fueled only by adrenaline and caffeine.

I have read many articles written by older generations trying to get a handle on the millennial generation. What I haven’t read are articles about what millennials are truly looking for in their chosen place of employment. As some millennials reach their mid-30s and start being promoted to supervisory roles, they will begin to, or may already be, leading departments. As they move into these leadership roles, they will start to have a profound impact on their departments and the way business is conducted.  

Most millennials watched their parents work long hours and sacrifice free time, family time and life experiences. This has left a lasting impression on millennials in how we chose to live our lives. Millennials are learning that money is not the most important commodity we have in our lives; the most important commodity we have is time.

With that in mind, here are the four things millennials are looking for in their careers:

1. The Right Recruitment Process

Law enforcement and corrections agencies struggle to find qualified applicants for professions that offer a starting salary of only $45,000, physical fitness tests, psychological tests, polygraphs, written exams, interviews, interviews, interviews, 14 weeks in the academy and then 10 weeks of a field training program before you can really hit the ground running, only to find out that was the easy part.

Oh, and don’t forget that entire process is just for one agency, apply to a second one, repeat, a third one, repeat, and so on.  

The whole hiring process is discouraging in itself and, while some people will probably disagree with me on this, it is designed to discourage people from applying. The thought is that if you can’t stay mentally strong through the process and persevere, you will never make it working on the street or in the prison. 

The job is dangerous; it puts a lot of stress on us mentally and physically, and causes our personal lives to bear the burden of it. It’s not uncommon for officers to get divorced and to suffer from alcoholism, depression, anxiety and PTSD. There is a reason why you’re eligible for retirement at the age of 55. When you throw all this together, you can see how our chosen profession does not look appealing.

With millennials being the primary age group for recruitment in every profession – and with every profession trying to attract the best and brightest – competition for their services is high. With government agencies restricted by union contracts for compensation, strict hiring guidelines and practices, and limited perks available, how do they compete with the private sector to draw in millennials?

Agencies are going to have to change the hiring process, period. I am not a proponent of lower hiring standards, but I am a proponent of better recruiting. Years ago, when agencies were getting 300 applications for three positions, the hiring process worked fine. Now some agencies are lucky to get 50 applicants and anyone who has been involved in the hiring process knows the remaining number of applicants left is nearly cut in half after each stage.

Some agencies have already made a change by creating lateral hiring opportunities and hiring mid-level positions such as sergeants and lieutenants from the outside. Is this enough?

Private sector companies do not sit back and wait for applicants. They actively search for them by using social media outlets, employment websites, networking, recruiting companies and, most important, working with qualified people from other companies or disciplines that have a valuable skill set that they can put to use and then convincing that person to come and work for their company.

When hospitals are facing a shortage of nurses they use companies to find temporary employees to fill empty positions until they find a more permanent fix.

When we look at millennials and how quickly they change careers in their life, continuing to have a hiring process that lasts anywhere from a year to 18 months in some cases is absurd. Expecting someone to put everything on hold for that long in hopes of getting a job is no longer feasible.

Opportunities are everywhere these days and half of your applicant pool is probably getting picked off by the private sector while the agency continues to trudge along through their hiring process.

2. Scheduling That Works for Modern Schedules

Millennials know that going into law enforcement or corrections means working nights, weekends and holidays. This is not a problem. The problem is working every night, weekend and holiday.

Speaking directly to my older colleagues: You worked hard and spent a lot of years getting on a day schedule with weekends and most holidays off. You paid your dues. I am sorry you had to go through that, because you got a very raw deal! Not to mention that by the time you got there, you were probably tired, burned out and angry about all the life events you missed.

Developing new scheduling is a must to keep millennials for the long term. A millennial may stick around for a while with a poor schedule in hopes of getting to a specialized unit or promoted, but if your department has a lot of stagnation, they will probably leave for something that provides a better work/life balance.

3. Making Officer Wellness a Priority

It’s no secret that exercise is good for your physical and mental health. So why does a profession that requires you to chase criminals, use force and possibly pull victims of accidents to safety, not have time for regular physical fitness training built into the work schedule? Why is it that a profession with a high rate of heart attacks, obesity, poor eating and sleeping habits does not promote a healthier lifestyle with a physical fitness program? Isn’t preventive health care cheaper than reactive health care?

Agencies are always looking for ways to increase productivity and to get more bang for their buck. Regardless of the size of the agency, the biggest expense they are going to face is paying personnel.

If you can create a program that will enhance the physical and mental wellbeing of your most important asset, wouldn’t this be the best possible rate of return on your investment? Taking care of your people will draw in millennials.

4. Team Leadership

This is of huge importance to millennials and is where you are going to win or lose them. Millennials want to work for a place they enjoy going to and a place they feel truly cares about them.

Why would a millennial want to go to work and possibly give years of their life to a department or leader they don’t feel appreciates them? Prior to the millennials, the answer would be because they are paying you to do a job. True, but just because you pay someone to do a job does not mean they get to control your life.  

The old belief is that if you don’t want to do the job you can quit and you will be replaced. This is true, you will be replaced. Yet, it’s the same the other way around. When you choose to go to work for someone, you are providing that person, company, or agency a service and, if you don’t like that employer, you fire them. They too can be replaced.

Climbing the career ladder is not what it used to be. Millennial employees are there because they want to be, not because they have to be. Millennials want leaders who care about them, appreciates them, respects them, mentors them, teaches them and leads them. They want leaders who understand that life is not all about work. Leaders must get to know their people. The one size fits all approach does not work. The leader, if you can even call them that, who does not care about their people and only uses them to further their goal, micro-manages, and is heavy handed, is not going to be able to retain people in the future.

In the book “Turn this Ship Around” the author L. David Marquet talks about how when he was running the USS Santa Fe, he developed a new leadership style. Marquet described how he put in place a “leader-leader” style of leadership, instead of the “leader-follower.” To do this, Marquet put a lot of trust into his subordinates and would no longer issue orders. Now the subordinates ran the ship and Marquet would guide, teach and override, if need be. This led to the USS Santa Fe becoming one of the best ran submarines in the U.S. Navy. This was a very innovative approach by a new leader that created an environment where everything was ran from the bottom up, not from the top down.

This type of leadership is leadership what millennials are going to embrace and work hard for. It creates a team environment, opens lines of communication, improves accountability and provides a better sense of purpose. It allows officers to own their job. It creates a department of individuals.  Even with this approach, there are still no questions about who is in charge and subordinates will have more respect for their leader. Good leaders understand that mistakes happen, we are human, and as much as we try to be perfect, we never will be.

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