The Present and Coming Recruitment and Retention Crisis

Dec. 19, 2018
Law enforcement is facing a recruitment and retention crisis, with shortages of interested and qualified candidates approaching critical levels. The implications are significant for many departments that first must scramble and compete for the best...

Law enforcement is facing a recruitment and retention crisis, with shortages of interested and qualified candidates approaching critical levels for many small to mid-sized departments, and now rippling into the staffing of larger departments that before could count on their higher profiles and array of opportunity to attract talent.  The implications are significant for many departments that first must scramble and compete for the best and brightest, and then struggle to hang onto them after significant investments in training and outfitting new hires are imperiled by poaching, better offers of pay and opportunity, disillusionment, reduced interest in long-term career commitment, and the host of traditional factors that contribute to officer attrition.

The problem of an employee shortage isn’t unique to law enforcement.  As the economy has improved, continuing to add jobs and drive a reduction in unemployment numbers across both the national and localized economies, employers have struggled to fill openings.  Many in the trades seeking to hired skilled and trainable young people for even high-paying, well-benefitted jobs lament the low numbers seemingly interested in careers in carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, pipefitting, and other positions required to meet the urban and suburban building booms the economy has spurred.  Restaurants even in traditionally large “foodie” cities such as Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, with their large populations and potential employee pools, compete not just for good servers, bartenders, and line cooks, but even dishwashers and bussers.  A sharp uptick in both number and quality of urban restaurants, along with their corresponding spread into the suburbs and smaller cities with growing, vibrant city centers, has created a demand for employees exceeding the pool’s supply.  These are just a couple of examples illustrating issues facing industries across the spectrum.

If the worker shortage is problematic for restaurant, retail, construction, technology, and service sectors, it is potentially dire for policing.  Not only is law enforcement a demanding career for which most applicants never qualify, those who do and are offered positions face strict demands in the academy, through field training, and in the early months of a career that will wash out high percentages of “looked good on paper” candidates before their probation is up.  Police departments require candidates of impeccable character, strong background and history, ability to learn and apply learning to diverse situations, and top notch physical and psychological fitness, which will both be strained over time in the strongest of candidates.  More and more departments are requiring more and more education, and placing greater corresponding demands on their cops, than ever and, unlike many other fields, police departments hire with the idea their officers will stick around for 20 to 30 years.  Recruiting, hiring, and keeping high quality officers in the face of a shrinking labor pool is and will continue to be a daunting task.       

To meet the challenges posed by the recruitment and retention problem facing the profession, it is important to first find some understanding of it. 

Conventional wisdom holds that much of the current problem facing law enforcement is one of image, pay and benefits, job stress, and poor candidate pools from which to select new officers.  To some extent, these are no doubt true, but it seems the core issues are probably much simpler at the core, with the aforementioned concerns aggravations to a predictable dilemma.  In one respect, the recruitment and retention problem is not really all that new; police departments have traditionally had difficulty drawing large and qualified candidate pools when the economy is doing well, especially after periods of recent recession. 

We are currently at the high point of a decade long economic recovery, with both high employment and stable new job creation.  When people are employed and/or feeling confident of their present vocations future, they are not as likely to be filling out applications for stable public safety jobs as when their confidence is waning in what they’ve been doing so far.  This reduces the number of career changers and those wanting to apply achieved skillsets to new endeavors.  Of course, those who have always dreamed of being a cop will apply, but they may be younger and less mature than we’ve been getting in recent years, less mature and lacking in experience or a proven track record.  With less competition, departments are forced to take greater risks on untested candidates. 

Agencies also face demographic challenges.  The youngest of the Millennial Generation (or Gen Y’s) are now entering the workforce, with the Post-Millennials (Gen Z) to soon follow.  The expectations and experiences of the Gen Y’s have led many of them to eschew a willingness to commit to the working conditions and long-term commitment requirements of police work.  We don’t yet know exactly what to expect of the newest cohort coming up behind the Y’s, but what we do know is this:  there aren’t going to be that many of them.

The second big demographic challenge facing all employers is one of both numbers and where those numbers are located.  The US birth rate has been declining for many years now, for various reasons, recently hitting a 40 year low.  Its continued decline is expected.  While the Millennials were one of the largest generational cohorts ever, they were born over the course of nearly two decades.  The generation just before them (Gen X) had fewer children than their parents before them, creating a decline in the number of younger Gen Y’s and Gen Z’s.  The Gen Y’s are even more baby averse. 

While this lack of procreative Getting it On has been going on – or NOT going on? –  the population has been consistently growing as people continue to benefit from better health and healthcare by living longer, more active lives, thus requiring more employees producing more and performing more services for the whole.  The total number of new workers expected to enter the workforce will be a shrinking percentage of the overall population, trying to fill more job openings.  Of course, some of the new jobs will be filled by existing, older, more experienced workers but public safety is generally a young person’s game, and will need to draw from the dwindling percentage of younger workers. 

Adding further complication has been a rural to urban migration as rural economies shift and struggle to overcome the loss of agricultural jobs, small manufacturing, and their support services.  Rural America has, in general, been aging disproportionately as older residents tend to stay put while the young relocate to suburbs and cities where opportunity abounds.  The need for quality law enforcement remains, however, and smaller departments face shortages of qualified candidates. 

The recruiting and retention crisis is currently daunting for many department.  It will likely become a challenge for many more as the consequences of recent and ongoing demographic shifts take root.  In our next article we will look more closely at some of the deeper issues and considerations for departments hoping to address them. 

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