By Randall Hanifen
A simple equation in every economics class is supply versus demand equals cost. For example, if consumers create a demand for an item lacking in supply, they will incur increased costs. This is where we are headed into the foreseeable future for public safety personnel – a continuing demand to fill positions and fewer available personnel will raise the cost of their employment.
However, as I watched a national news organization, the message was that some government workers are overpaid and their salaries are out of control. This will place all chief executives of public safety organizations in a predicament because we all need to hire and retain top talent, just as any successful business needs to do to remain viable.
Fire and Emergency Services Are Having a Hard Time Attracting the Needed Numbers
For a variety of factors, fire and emergency services are having a hard time attracting the needed numbers in their hiring processes. This smaller number of applicants has spawned the idea of “lateral entry” in which some employees start at one organization and then join another at a higher pay rate due to their previous full-time experience.
This tactic has created a bit of a bidding war. Anyone who wants to keep their personnel must be above the 50 percentile of pay rates in their region. If not, employees are likely move to another organization within a few years, regardless of their ability to make a lateral transfer.
The smaller employee pool is said to be caused by several factors, one of which is high school students not being aware of fire, EMS and police as career options. While many in management can argue that the higher levels of emergency services are commensurate with leading a private business, fire, EMS and police entry-level positions are often considered to be manual or blue-collar professions, even though we are listed in the professional section of employment want ads.
Most high schools are geared towards preparing students to attend college. College prep courses start in the freshman year and all focus on higher education, not gaining a trade in the emergency services. A second issue is we are a society that believes in not getting dirty at work. The narrative is you are successful if you wear a suit and tie and work in an office. This has stigmatized jobs that are seen as hard and dirty manual labor.
Another issue is related to employers outside the major urban centers cities wanting to hire only people who already have fire and EMS certification. My department has only hired certified firefighter/paramedics. From a training cost, this is a good way to save money initially, but this limiting factor can lessen diversity and the reduce the candidate pool.
The extra $20,000-$40,000 derived from the overtime needed to train personnel spread over 20 years is only $1,000 to $2,000 per year. That is miniscule compared to the legal costs of hiring those who may be certified but who do not possess the proper ethical or moral values and must be released from the service.
Many career fields are reporting the need to raise annual wages to nearly double digits due to the competition. While that competition is often at the entry level, there is a ripple effect through the steps and ranks of the department and its employment contracts.
Knowing that many firefighter contracts have four to six advancement steps often with 3% increases and multiple ranks often separated by 6% to 10%, the entry cost of a new hire making $75,000 can equate to the top positions in private industry making in excess of $100,000.
While some can argue that firefighting is a dangerous job with nearly endless training and education, it is the salary as compared to the median salary in the department’s area that matters. Indeed, many local residents become frustrated seeing their tax dollars go to personnel making exponentially more than they do.
In the economic downturn of 2008-2011, we saw many angry citizens groups target government salaries because so many of them were unemployed, while government workers remained on the job. In addition, they were making the same salary as they did before the recession. That situation upset those who previously were gainfully employed but now needed a place to channel their anger.
While some media will focus on the rising cost of teachers’ salaries, as compared to top-paid government officials, over the next several years their target will change as costs of everything increase, including taxes. But many mid-level workers’ salaries will not rise due to the need to pay entry-level personnel more to comply with current minimum wages.
Emergency services executives need to be aware of the impending battle of mindsets. Many of those executives are political appointees, who must answer for what occurs within their organizations regardless whether or not they are needed to provide a quality service.