This year has been an incredible professional journey for me. It has helped put into perspective a number of issues and challenges I’ve struggled with over the early stages of my professional career in Disaster and Emergency Management (EM), which began in 2009.
These challenges fall into 5 categories, and I hope my thoughts on each will be insightful and ultimately useful. Before I do so, I’d like to share my motivation for this post.
In short, I am concerned for the future of our profession, especially the hundreds of young professional across Canada who are committed to this career path, and have dedicated a lot of time and energy cultivating their skills in this field. I am concerned because, having successfully transitioned from various academic programs in EM to employment, I have observed that there is precious little guidance, and few opportunities for young professionals to determine and develop the most relevant and in-demand skills, as well as to find work related to their field in entry level professional positions.
As the image I chose for this post suggests, bridging the gap between school and work is (at the very least) a two-way street between new and existing professionals. However I would also argue that the future of our discipline additionally rests on academia, professional associations, and governments to raise its profile. These groups also have a role to play in supporting and nurturing EM to become an increasingly mature and well-developed field, as well as a dependable career path.
The last statement is not one I make lightly. I realize that career paths are never sure, and are fraught with challenges and critical decisions along the way. In spite of this, my worry is simple; as a recognized pillar of Public Safety in Canada, there needs to be adequate infrastructure and opportunities for young professionals to a) develop skills relevant to the current and future needs of the field, and b) to find and climb the career ladder.
I hope the following list will help further highlight why I feel so strongly about this topic, and why I will continue to be an advocate for this issue in Ontario (and beyond).
1. The role of Academia needs to evolve
Having just completed a plethora of certifications and degrees, including a Master of Disaster and Emergency Management at York University (MDEM), I firmly believe that academia is not doing enough to bridge the gap to employment.
Most of the programs I have had the pleasure of being involved with as a student offer a variety of very necessary and useful skills, including many industry standards such as Incident Management Systems 100/200, Business Continuity basics and even Information Officer training. However, I have also found three main challenges:
a) Academia has limited engagement with current professionals, leading to classes which only go a portion of the way to teaching the current desired skills. One example from my academic carer was Business Continuity; I was able to take courses which have the potential to match industry-recognized certifications such as ABCP, but which failed to even attempt to do so.
b) There is limited opportunity to ‘mix and match’ courses to fit the current needs of the industry. You have to ‘shop around’ at the JIBC, Emergency Management Ontario, George Brown College, Sheridan and others to obtain a set of courses which would be considered well-rounded by EM hiring managers and HR.
c) There are limited opportunities for mentorship and work-based learning opportunities. While some internship opportunities exist, they too often rely on the students themselves to cold-call or initiate contact with professionals in the field. Even if a list of contacts exists, the limited/lack of mentorship and networking opportunities often makes this a daunting, frustrating and even fruitless experience.
An obvious common thread in all three of these items is the apparent lack of understanding and engagement between academic institutions and the evolving needs of the industry.
2. Current professionals – we need you!
Often the current crop of experienced Emergency Management professionals seem a distant and unreachable lot. While this is often the perception, most are very willing to mentor and foster connections with young people entering the field.
We need so much more of this!
I have achieved a lot in my short career, and while this seems like a brag, it is in fact a humble and genuine statement of acknowledgement and gratitude to all of the many mentors in my life, including (but not limited to) David Etkin at York University and James Kilgour at the City of Toronto.
Both sides of this equation, as well as the professional associations and governments which employ, advocate for and regulate our profession, need to make professional development a priority. In addition, there needs to be a platform for engagement and support – to help retain and develop students once they graduate, to help foster innovation in the field, and to create dialogue between all parties.
The latter is of key importance – once students graduate they fall into a grey area between school and employment, experiencing the benefits of neither, while still in dire need of support and guidance.
3. Government buy-in is key
If we are to remain confident in the future of our industry, we (the grand ‘we’) need to believe that Emergency Management is in fact a recognized pillar of Public Safety in Ontario and Canada.
This requires a far more substantial commitment to EM than currently exists, especially at the provincial level. The current Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM) is the conduit for change and development of EM in Ontario, and has incredible potential to be a provincial leader in Canadian EM. However, after recent restructurings and continuing leadership challenges, it is difficult to imagine any increased capacity for engagement with the EM professional community, or leverage of their knowledge and abilities to create an improved provincial framework.
Without strong leadership for EM in Ontario, it is challenging to see a future in this field within this province. In addition, this lack of confidence leads many professionals, especially young people, to simply move elsewhere to take advantage of opportunities in other parts of the country or abroad. This exporting of talent is another clear loss for the future of EM in this province.
At the very least, there needs to be more engagement with current and future leaders in Emergency Management, to inform governance and legislative improvements, at the federal as well as national level. In addition, provincial and federal governments need to develop models for EM which recognize and support the discipline in its own right, in addition to an integral support for the ‘tri-services’, not as an afterthought of the latter. This means opening the dialogue to include a wider array of practitioners and professionals.
4. Entry level work – Quantity, but also screening for existing jobs
The industry standard for students entering the workplace, in my experience, is a masters degree. The problem is, a lot of masters degrees have absolutely nothing to do with Emergency Management, not to mention that most entry-level jobs realistically do not require a masters degree.
Even with the Master of Disaster and Emergency Management degree, most students, as previously discussed, lack a great many skills which are needed to enter the field. Most HR departments include a laundry list of qualifications on job calls for entry level jobs which are simply not that simple to obtain without large stacks of cash, or without a previous employer to provide them. A catch 22, then; how does one obtain qualifications needed to get an EM job, without a job to pay for them?
Clearly the academic institutions need to consider this gap, along with the associations and other advocacy and professional groups, but so should hiring managers. We are potentially losing a good number of motivated and intelligent young professionals to this chasm of somewhat arbitrary HR requirements.
You can see the justification for this statement in almost every job description I’ve come across – below is a great example of one which fails to recognize EM as a field in its own right:
- Posting title: Advisor, Emergency Management
- Educational requirement: University degree in related field (e.g., Computer Science, Business, Finance)
Clearly, the definition of ‘most qualified candidate’ needs to be visited (or revisited). Again, recognition and support of EM in its own right through standards, regulations and government support is a key part of this puzzle.
5. The Chasm of qualifications
More on this catch 22 from the previous point:
For those positions which are well-researched and presented, it becomes the responsibility of the professional community and academia to begin work on bridging the gap. We need to support our young professionals, to provide them with the skills they need to get those jobs and get a foot on that career ladder.
The advice I was given some time ago on this score was to volunteer as much as possible, and I stand by this. However, this is often said with a certain element of disdain for those ‘young lazy people who expect everything gift-wrapped’. I would argue passionately that this latter assumption is almost entirely wrong. Currently the field is simply not developed enough to offer students accessible options to grow the right skills – and this emphasis is key. We simply cannot expect volunteer work to be the only way for young professionals to make the leap from school to work. Not only does this sort of work usually develop very specific humanitarian-focused skills, it is often passed over as valid experience in interviews and by HR. It is one way, but not the only way, to develop our young talent, and to keep them in EM.
TIME FOR ACTION!
In summary, I would encourage each and every person reading this article to consider reaching out to other professionals in EM, whether young professional or seasoned and experienced manager. Do not simply engage, but network. Build relationships, and begin to discuss solutions to the issues I’ve highlighted above. Be innovative; do not simply join a professional organization but help steer it, organize it, even lead it. Put pressure on institutions to change – especially Academic ones who need to be responsive to the needs of their associated professional counterparts.
On that note, join OAEM (www.oaem.ca), where I will be helping to develop a young professionals network to compliment and leverage our existing mentorship programs! The association is the home of Emergency Management in Ontario, and your voice as an EM professional.
And lastly, please fill out this survey to help me understand the challenges better: http://fluidsurveys.com/surveys/sarah-thompson-4ht/bridging-the-gap-school-to-work/