Help Wanted: Next Generation of Emergency Managers

by Catherine L. Feinman

Veterans, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials compose the majority of the modern workforce, but the next generation (Generation Z) is now beginning to emerge from schools and colleges. Before this new generation transforms into a significant portion of the workforce, it is important to determine what makes these young people unique and what they can offer to the emergency management field.

Catherine Feinman headshotThe Millennial generation, comprising people born in the 1980s and early 1990s, currently forms the largest living population in the United States. As such, Millennials today have a significant presence in the workplace and in social networks. However, with three million more U.S. births than its predecessor, the subsequent generation of post-Millennials (known as Generation Z) born in 1995 or later will move into the spotlight over the next decade. With Generation Z growing up post-9/11, its population has a very different view of the world, different manner of communicating, and different methods for tackling tough issues.

Research reveals articles that discuss Generation Z traits, such as learning styles, work ethic, leadership abilities, environmental views, social skills, behavioral traits, and activity levels. Having unique perspectives on their communities, country, and world, this young generation exhibits different socialization and technological skills than previous generations. How this generation learns, behaves, and interacts with others can influence their ability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters. By examining studies conducted on these youths as they grow from infancy, through childhood, and into adulthood, various traits and characteristics could influence their ability to effectively manage emergencies.

Emergency Management at Its Core

Emergency management is a unique profession that necessarily spans multiple disciplines, multiple jurisdictions, and multiple generations of people. A 12-person FEMA Working Group developed eight core Principles of Emergency Management to ensure that current and future emergency managers are equipped with the right tools to protect their communities from any type of natural or human-caused disaster. By comparing these principles to the generalized characteristics of Generation Z, the following assertions could be made:

  1. Comprehensive: Emergency managers should be comprehensive – all hazards, all phases, and all consequences – to work toward a common goal with all stakeholders. Generation Z saw the cascading effects of an economic crisis, the devastation of 9/11, the ongoing cleanup of Hurricane Katrina, and the emotional trauma following terror attacks. This generation is not disillusioned about such threats, and their tendency toward risk aversion could inspire mitigative efforts to prevent such disasters.
  2. Progressive: Emergency managers should be progressive and focus more on predisaster planning, which in turn would mitigate the response and recovery phases of disaster. Generation Z is not afraid of change and has a tendency to want to solve problems rather than manage consequences. Predisaster planning is one way this generation can use its entrepreneurial skills to build community preparedness and resilience into the psyche and routine of future generations.
  3. Risk-driven: Emergency managers should be risk driven and assign the highest priorities to the greatest hazards and risks. Generation Z members want to make a difference in their communities yet at the same time avoid risks. Although they have a desire to save money for the future, they may see great value in targeted spending now for preparedness efforts to minimize future risks.
  4. Integrated: Emergency managers should be integrated to ensure unity of effort throughout communities and at all levels of management. Generation Z provides more opportunities for two-way mentoring: top-down for teaching traditional skills and bottom-up for teaching technological skills. In the process of bilateral mentoring, the generational gap in a multigenerational work environment becomes smaller and the tolerance for others with different beliefs, practices, and styles becomes greater.
  5. Collaborative: Emergency managers should be collaborative to create and sustain relationships based on trust. Starting from birth with their parental relationships, Generation Z has developed a collaborative “we-centric” mindset, with their parents and role models serving as mentors rather than authoritarian figures. These core relationships coupled with inclusive attitudes toward all races, genders, ethnicities, and religions, provide a solid base for community partnerships to form and thrive.
  6. Coordinated: Emergency managers should be coordinated and synchronize preparedness efforts with all stakeholders, rather than dictate activities that the various stakeholders should do. Although Generation Z members prefer to work alone, they are not averse to team efforts. Emergency management offers a hybrid work environment where there are plenty of opportunities for independent learning as well as for group training, drills, and exercises.
  7. Flexible: Emergency managers should be flexible and use out-of-the-box thinking to address challenges and solve problems as circumstances change. Generation Z has grown up in an ever-changing socioeconomic environment and does not automatically follow common conventions for what to think and how to perform tasks. This emerging workforce addresses problems from a fresh perspective, which spurs innovative ideas and perhaps solutions that have not yet been discovered.
  8. Professional: Emergency managers should be professional and never stop learning and developing their skills. Generation Z students value higher education when it brings them closer to their career goals. Combining their natural skills and abilities with imaginative learning and gaming techniques would likely keep this generation engaged and motivated to contribute to long-term community preparedness and resilience.
Help Wanted: Next Generation of Emergency Managers
Class at Beethoven Elementary School in Boston, Massachusetts, prepares for emergencies with the Student Tools for Emergency Planning (STEP) Program. Source: FEMA/Michelle Collins (2008). 

Caveats & Recommendations

Generation Z possesses many characteristics that align well with the principles developed for effective emergency management. However, before integrating this emerging workforce into emergency management, this generation’s weaknesses cannot be overlooked. Broad use of technology and frequent texting and social media use do not equate to effective communication skills. These skills need to be taught and demonstrated by older generations of professionals. Another caveat is the level at which this generation depends on technological devices. During a disaster, there is likely to be at least some level of disruption in cellphone, Internet, and GPS services. How well Generation Z members can adapt and how much they know about “old school” preparedness techniques require further research and, most likely, additional training from seasoned professionals.

By examining societal, educational, and interpersonal factors that are considered the “norm” for Generation Z – and assuming this generation does not change its trajectory – inferences can be made with regard to their potential future contributions to emergency and disaster preparedness. First, societal factors within their families and communities have shaped their behaviors and thoughts with regard to their communities’ threats, risks, and hazards. Second, educational factors have altered the ways in which they learn and play, which differ from previous generations. Finally, interpersonal factors such as work ethic, leadership, and communication style have changed how Generation Z builds intragenerational and intergenerational social interactions.

Emergency management agencies are tasked with creating safe environments for the communities they serve. This includes coordinating plans, resources, and personnel during the prevention, preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation stages of a disaster. As the frequency and intensity of disasters increase, the need for personnel in the emergency management field also increases. As Veterans and Baby Boomers retire, their wealth of knowledge and skills for managing emergencies and disasters retire with them unless these traits are transferred to younger generations through recruitment and training efforts. Generation Z is a strong prospect for acquiring legacy knowledge and skills and for making new contributions to the emergency management’s body of knowledge, but emergency management agencies must take a proactive approach to attract and retain this emerging workforce.

Everything changes and agencies must be able to adapt. Generational transitions are one such change that introduces opportunities for new perspectives, new communication techniques, and new ways of addressing problems. However, in order to leverage the incoming workforce, agencies must first understand and accept the generational differences that exist between current and future personnel. They must identify operational gaps within the agency as well as the skills and abilities of Generation Z that could help fill these gaps. Emergency management efforts encourage taking a whole community approach and engaging all stakeholders. The same is true for recruiting within the field. Generation Z is a new stakeholder that understands risks and threats, wants to solve problems, and feels strongly about helping communities.

To attract this generation to the field, emergency management agencies must emphasize the tasks that are most important to these young adults: continuing education opportunities; serving communities; risk-reduction responsibilities; solving problems; joining a growing field with many positions; individual and group learning; fast-paced environment; and need for multitasking. These types of tasks coupled with the knowledge that they can earn a paycheck doing them would be attractive to many members of Generation Z. However, grassroots efforts and outreach through schools and community programs are needed to build awareness among youths about the benefits of joining forces with the emergency management field. The following recommendations list some steps that those in the field need to take to ensure successful integration of Generation Z:

  • Mentor and work with interns at the high school level to inform Generation Z about emergency preparedness.
  • Develop gaming techniques to promote critical thinking and overcome risk aversion.
  • Include hands-on opportunities for experiential learning.
  • Integrate social media as an information sharing and communication tool.
  • Encourage a social support structure to reduce stress and interpersonal conflicts.
  • Create intergenerational workgroups to share knowledge and skills.
  • Assign mentors with legacy knowledge and skills to new personnel.
  • Provide opportunities for new personnel to share ideas.
  • Define communication and interpersonal expectations.
  • Integrate individual and group learning into the educational structure.
  • Ensure individual accountability.

Recruiting an Adaptable Workforce

Although emergency management is competing for technologically savvy workers against industries that are more technologically advanced, this field still has many attractive opportunities for Generation Z. These include various emergency management activities that fall within the stages of a disaster: identifying vulnerabilities and hardening potential targets (prevention); anticipating needs and fostering partnerships (preparedness); supporting response agencies and staffing emergency operations centers (response); assessing damages and collaborating with other organizations (recovery); and reducing the impact of future threats (mitigation). Connections can be made between Generation Z characteristics and the principles of emergency management, and how these characteristics could benefit the field. However, more research is needed on practical experience as members of Generation Z begin to enter emergency management agencies.

In a rapidly growing field responsible for managing emergency and disaster preparedness efforts, recruiting and maintaining personnel are critical. Fortunately, an emerging workforce in Generation Z could fulfill the industry’s need for more personnel and provide adaptive solutions for an ever-changing threat environment. The emergency management field could flourish as Generation Z grows into leadership roles, but only if the older generations take the time to understand their younger counterparts and use an effective mentoring style to draw out their talents and abilities. As the emergency management field grows, it needs to adapt to intergenerational changes and transitions, many of which introduce new innovative thoughts and solutions. With effective mentoring and the opportunity to demonstrate its strengths, Generation Z will likely prove to be an agent for change to make communities more prepared and more resilient.

This article is based on the author’s masters thesis, which can be accessed in full here.

Catherine (Cathy) Feinman, M.A., joined Team DomPrep in January 2010. She brought more than 25 years of publishing experience to her current role as editor-in-chief and works with writers and other contributors to build and create new content that is relevant to the emergency preparedness, response, and resilience communities. She also volunteers as an emergency medical technician, firefighter, and member of the Media Advisory Panel of EMP SIG (InfraGard National Members Alliance). She received a masters degree in emergency and disaster management from American Military University.