5 ways police leaders can recruit and retain millennials

A generational wariness toward long-term employment commitments creates employee retention issues


Editor's note: This special coverage series, Recruitment & Retention Crisis: The Struggle to Hire – and Keep – Good Cops, will take an in-depth look at the recruitment and retention challenges currently facing police agencies, share potential solutions to the crisis and highlight best practices progressive PDs are deploying to bolster their ranks. Watch for further installments of this series throughout the rest of 2017.

The cohort of young adults known as the millennial generation has been causing a stir for some time.

New York Police Department (NYPD) recruits raise their right hands in a pledge during a swearing-in ceremony for new recruits at the Police Academy, Thursday, July 6, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
New York Police Department (NYPD) recruits raise their right hands in a pledge during a swearing-in ceremony for new recruits at the Police Academy, Thursday, July 6, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Generally considered as those born between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s, they are technologically savvy, highly social, socially tolerant, generally well educated and civically engaged. They upend social and business conventions, challenging old ways of thinking across academic, marketplace and political landscapes, and driving change and innovation at a lightning fast pace.

They also take a lot of fire. Criticized as coddled, entitled and immature, they are seen to embody all the characteristics of the insulter du jour, the overly sensitive and much-maligned “snowflake.”

How millennial cops differ from previous generations

Millennials entering law enforcement today are more likely than earlier generations of cops to boast college degrees (and to seek even higher education), to come from widely diverse backgrounds, and to express openness to and acceptance of ideas that would strike many older officers as unconventional (or even “liberal”).

Many come pre-committed to maintaining a work/life balance in comparison to older colleagues, who wear years of working impossibly long hours and personal self-sacrifice (not to mention relentless pursuit of the almighty O.T. dollar!) like a badge of honor. They are less likely to center their social life around police culture, opting instead to compartmentalize their work and non-work lives.

While these traits are concerning to veteran officers and administrators, to others they reflect a wider sociological shift. In recent years, we have been advocating for police officers to develop a healthier work/life balance to address the stresses of the job, so we hope this generation’s approach will become normalized over time.

With that said, millennials – and especially younger millennials – do exhibit one trait that is already affecting police agencies currently hiring and employing them. A generational wariness toward long-term employment commitments has created issues of employee retention for a profession that has traditionally expected and relied on workforce longevity to ensure stability and experience.

Millennial recruitment and retention concerns

Known as “job hoppers,” millennials move from one employer to another, trying on different hats, and ready to jump ship for greener (or more interesting) pastures.

A 2012 poll of millennial workers found that as many as 91 percent expect to stay in any one job less than three years. To think law enforcement is drawing entirely from the 9 percent with expectations of greater stability is foolish. Further, “54 percent of millennials either want to start a business or already have started one. And 72 percent of Generation Z (the post-millennial generation) want to start their own business.”

Virtually all new police hires today are coming from the younger end of the millennial pool, with the Gen Z population soon to follow as they come of recruitment age. Gallup research found 60 percent of employed millennials are open to new opportunities, and they are the generation most likely to switch jobs and least engaged in the workplace.

These numbers are raising concern in the private sector where companies are not only competing to recruit and hire the best young talent, but to retain staff and promote engagement. Losing employees impacts productivity and profits, increases employee-training costs and often damages the ability of a company to attract replacement workers. The stakes for law enforcement may even be higher.

Unlike the private sector that can generally expect its employee pool to remain in the game for up to 20 years longer than the typical police officer (who retires younger), they can draw from potential candidates across a wider range of age and experience. Law enforcement typically hires from a much younger pool, often due to statutory restrictions, with older candidates and experienced lateral transfers possible, but still representing relatively few hires.  

And as most police officers would probably attest, it can take three to five years for a young officer to become truly proficient at the job. The cost of training a young officer runs into the tens of thousands of dollars in the first few months of employment alone, with hiring expenses, salary and benefits, training, uniforms, gear and field training officer costs. Some departments wash out from 10 percent-50 percent of new hires before they clear probation, and still others quickly decide, “I was wrong, this isn’t for me!” and leave on their own.

By the time an officer is solo, fully competent and invested for the long haul, a department has spent a small fortune. Send them to a few schools or invest in training for specialty positions or ancillary assignments and the cost increases. These are good investments if officers stick around long enough to produce benefits. Experienced, highly functioning, highly invested officers benefit their communities, departments and fellow officers. High turnover undermines good service, professionalism and morale.

Police agencies are not only competing for a smaller pool of potential applicants relative to the millennials – which is still the largest living demographic – but can expect more of the same when they start recruiting Gen Z, the smallest demographic and the one most idealizing entrepreneurship over working for someone else. Recruitment and retention may only become harder in the future, so focusing on officer retention strategies now is a top priority for law enforcement agencies.

Principles of retaining millennial police officers

The key principle on which to focus and work toward is engagement. Employee engagement is a critical factor in job satisfaction for almost all employees regardless of age, but the millennial cohort is the one most likely to leave in its absence. To foster engagement, police agencies must emphasize certain attitudes and practices from the top down.

1. Respect an employee’s desire for a work/life balance

The days of cops routinely sacrificing home and personal life for the job are over. Thanks to increased familial closeness and definitions of family expanded to include longtime friendship circles, the ubiquity of social media and tightened bonds it creates, and increased opportunities for socialization and lived “experiences,” millennial police officers are simply different than those of older generations.

Embrace the differences. If possible, invite younger officers to bring their family and friends around to show off the department, go on ride-alongs, meet bosses and coworkers, and experience the job. Involving those people most important to your young officers in their work world increases the likelihood of the officer bonding with the agency. Working to enhance valued work/life balance demonstrates good faith, empathy and valuing what is important to them.

2. Foster a sense of purpose

Millennials demand purpose. They need to feel invested in something bigger than themselves, that their work has meaning and value, and that putting on the uniform each day is important. Police work can sometimes become a grind, where officers feel they are tasked busy work or simply spinning their wheels with little effect. It takes leadership and guidance, usually from a purpose-driven supervisor or fellow officer, for most employees to discern meaning from the mundane. There are countless “competent” managers in policing, but precious few leaders. Be that leader, regardless of rank.

In “Millennials: The Job Hopping Generation,” Gallup writer Amy Adkins posits:

It's possible that many millennials actually don't want to switch jobs, but their companies aren't giving them compelling reasons to stay. When millennials see what appears to be a better opportunity, they have every incentive to take it. While millennials can come across as wanting more and more, the reality is that they just want a job that feels worthwhile -- and they will keep looking until they find it.

What could be more worthwhile than law enforcement? For the opportunity to make immediate, lasting impact, policing should offer countless opportunities.

3. Provide varied and impactful opportunities

In many law enforcement agencies, specialty assignments are doled out infrequently or given only to certain “golden children.” Opportunities for training, to take part on specialty teams or expand professional horizons are few. Even for high performers, this can create a sense of “I’ll never move up, or get a chance to do anything besides chase the radio,” leading to disillusionment and bitterness.

Even if specialty assignments are highly competitive and difficult to come by, we can still provide opportunities to learn and practice complex skill sets.

Providing opportunities for temporary assignments with specialized divisions allows an officer to practice and demonstrate what they are capable of, stay engaged and have a little fun, while letting permanently assigned officers get to know younger officers’ work ethic and potential.

Encourage patrol officers to work complex investigations, develop community-policing projects, and formulate and carry out traffic enforcement strategies. Supervisors can foster officer development by arranging mentorship and training opportunities to develop needed skills.

4. Provide recognition as a matter of course

Millennials are often criticized as the “participation trophy” generation, even by themselves, and there is certainly some validity to that. However, occasional recognition is valuable. 

Leaders who care know that praising past and current behavior is the best way to predict future behavior. Praising those who have performed well virtually ensures they will continue whatever activity got them the praise. Recognition does not need to be formal or complex – a roll call “Atta boy!” goes a long way – but departmental awards are very powerful. Unfortunately, many departments see giving praise as a sign of weakness and “ball busting” is the norm. Get past it.

5. Create an environment of advocacy and trust

This one is huge, so do not underestimate it.

Millennials are especially untrusting of institutions and organizations. In “Millennials Don’t Trust Anyone: That’s a big deal,” political analyst Chris Cillaza writes, “Of 10 major societal institutions, just two – the military and scientists – garnered majority support from millennials on the question of whom they trust to do the right thing most of the time.” The one bright light in an otherwise depressingly cynical article is that the police came in third. So we are doing okay, it seems, among young adults!

If you are a supervisor or senior officer, create an environment of advocacy and trust. Have your subordinates’ backs, be willing to take heat for them when it is due, and create an environment of advocacy and trust where appropriate.

Conclusion

The millennial generation is the future of law enforcement. It is up to current police officers and law enforcement leaders to prepare and support them for the challenges they face. We are all responsible for the retention of solid, well-trained, highly engaged police officers, so let’s make sure we do right by them and the communities we serve.

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