6 steps for EMS leaders to better engage millennials

Engaging millennials is about more than simply welcoming a new generation to the workplace; it's about accepting a seismic shift in how we view careers, technology and innovation

By Jay Fitch, PhD

Our profession has become preoccupied with millennials over the last few years. The number of magazine articles, conferences, books and blog posts dedicated to this generation’s involvement in EMS has reached epic proportions.

Who are millennials, and why have they become such an important demographic for EMS? While there is some disagreement about the precise date range, it’s generally accepted that millennials include those born between 1982 and 2004.

A group of millennial EMTs, who are current and former students of the University of California, Berkeley, and members of the Berkeley Medical Reserve Corps prepare for an Urban Shield MCI triage exercise.
A group of millennial EMTs, who are current and former students of the University of California, Berkeley, and members of the Berkeley Medical Reserve Corps prepare for an Urban Shield MCI triage exercise. (Photo/Greg Friese)

Millennials are more than a new generation. They represent a seismic shift in the ways people look at careers, technology and innovation. While public safety agencies have made some cultural concessions in the last five decades, the EMS profession has been able to move steadily forward through previous generations without significant disruption.

The prevalence of millennials in the workplace brings with it cultural changes that EMS agencies that wish to remain viable and important can’t ignore or avoid. While it’s easy to project the frustration and anxiety associated with these cultural shifts onto millennials, they’re not to blame.

Significance of millennials in the EMS workforce

Millennials don’t know what life was like before the rapid advancements in technology and information of the last two decades. To them, this is the way the world has always been. Leaders are preoccupied with millennials not just because they represent the largest segment of our workforce, but also because of what their arrival signifies.

EMS agencies are struggling to find their place in a world where:

Millennials aren’t beholden to tradition.

This doesn’t mean that millennials don’t appreciate or value tradition. But they do not feel an obligation to support an idea or behavior just because "that’s the way we’ve always done it."

Millennials don’t feel shackled by location.

For centuries, people’s vocations dictated where they and their families lived. Farmers needed to be close to their crops, assembly-line workers to the factory and office workers near their cubicles. That’s all changed. Caregivers now commute great distances to work with an agency of their choosing and live elsewhere.

Millennials don’t define community by proximity.

For thousands of years, community was something that was about physical presence. It has always been about people living and working in proximity with each other — our squad serves our local community.

Today, looser definitions are applied as the internet, social media and other technology advances unravel the definition of community we’ve always embraced. EMS leaders can sit back and demand that community is defined in the ways we’ve always defined it, but it won’t change anything. We still must struggle through the implications of these changes.

Millennials don’t see education as a gatekeeper.

It’s ironic that the millennial generation is one of the most educated generations in history because they’re developing an entirely different view of learning.

As technology advances and the kinds of skills needed to perform different jobs increase, millennials place more significance on an education that cultivates expertise rather than one that merely chocks up qualifications on paper. Our initial and continuing education activities need to reflect this dimension.

How to engage millennials

So given these facts, how do EMS leaders reach out and engage millennials? Here are some suggestions.

Step 1: Empower your millennials.

The first order of business is to put your millennial members into areas of leadership. And I don’t mean that they should just be made field training officers or special event coordinators. They need to be put in positions where they can have actual influence over the decisions that are made on behalf of the organization.

Perhaps more difficult than simply putting them in positions of authority, EMS agencies need to give them a lot of room to lead and grow. They’re going to come up with ideas and perspectives that are outside the norm, and that’s why they’re there. You need to listen to them, discover how they think and provide opportunities for them to make decisions that affect how serving the community is accomplished.

It’s easy to appoint people to committees in EMS organizations and force them to conform to leadership's will. Be aware of this tendency and make sure it doesn’t happen.

Don’t be too quick to dismiss out-of-the-box thinking. When empowered and listened to, the millennials in your agency will give you real insight into the thinking of an entire generation.

Step 2: Intentionally develop millennials into future leaders.

You also want to identify and develop millennials as leaders. We’ve allowed EMS to get into the habit of sequestering younger caregivers and supervisors away from top leadership. Perhaps it’s time to think of our younger caregivers as valuable members of the team and future leaders who need to feel a sense of responsibility and investment in the life of the agency.

Step 3: Reach out to millennials in the community.

One of the best ways to recruit and engage the workforce is to be a force for good in the community through a variety of different mechanisms. Be creative. Millennial members of your organization are passionate about giving their time and resources to social causes. According to the Millennial Impact Report, 84 percent of millennials made charitable donations in 2014, and 70 percent reported doing volunteer work.

Millennials in the community will enthusiastically partner with EMS organizations if they feel that their work actually does some good. For agencies passionate about doing good for their communities, this is a wonderful way to build relationships with a generation whose members tend to be cynical about public safety.

Millennials are "a primed generation willing and wanting to do good action into causes and issues they care about," said Derrick Feldmann, founder of Achieve, a data-driven organization that researches millennials and social good. "Millennials are very excited ... to do something good for the cause."

Step 4: Invite millennials to gather, learn in EMS facilities.

Your agency’s buildings are some of the most important assets your organization has. The more they can be used to become an important center for community gatherings and meetings, the better the organization can build relationships that extend beyond any particular generation and touch every facet of the community.

It isn’t a concession or a compromise to use your facilities and resources in ways that benefit the community, but don’t provide a direct and measurable advantage to the organization. Many services have built incredible relationships with millennials by opening their doors for events like CPR training, neighborhood watch meetings and other community-centered activities. Allowing people in the community to use your buildings and other resources helps solidify the impression that your agency is an organization that exists for their benefit.

Step 5: Rethink your technology and give social media its due.

There’s a lot of discussion about social media and how it can help positively promote your agency — and it’s all true. Through "likes" and sharing, content published on your Facebook page is promoted to the wider social circles of your community.

When you explain to members of your organization that their interaction with your Facebook page is a form of outreach, you can build a strategy around sharing your culture with people who might be open to learning more. So many EMS agencies neglect to take advantage of Facebook and other social media platforms, and they’re missing out on an incredible opportunity. Once you invite and engage with your personnel, policymakers and vendors to be part of your Facebook page, they can invite their friends and family. It’s free, organically grown promotion.

Step 6: Make room for millennials to succeed.

To position your agency for future success, you’ll need to make room for millennials. This becomes a lot easier when you recognize that the differences in this generation represent cultural changes.

None of these steps are easy or intuitive for baby boomer or Generation X leaders. Once you begin to empower the millennials among you and respond to these transitions, you’ll discover that reaching and recruiting this generation is easier than you imagine.

About the author
Jay Fitch is the founding partner at Fitch & Associates, which has provided leadership development and consulting for emergency services for more than three decades. 

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