When I wrote of my concerns about the applicant pool in 2000, I would have been shocked that, in 2015, I would look back fondly at the available candidates at the turn of the millennium. Although my thoughts and suggestions regarding hiring the best candidates remain valid today, there are a few additions and new issues.
I had theorized that the problem with attracting top-notch candidates had to do with the booming economy at the beginning of the new millennium. Candidates had many options in choosing a career, and some options paid better than law-enforcement was offering. I was wrong. During the deepest recession in recent history, most agencies cut back hiring severely. When there were vacancies to be filled, we expected top-notch candidates to be lining up. Instead, it became increasingly difficult to find applicants who passed background. As it turned out, there was no significant change in the applicant pool. It was still difficult to find the right candidates even in a seriously depressed job market.
I now believe the economy, although having some effect on the candidate pool, is not the primary issue driving an interest in a law enforcement career. Law enforcement remains somewhat of a calling. However, since 2000, we are essentially looking at a different generation of candidates. Many in the hiring business, both in law-enforcement and other industries, are commenting on a culture of entitlement that makes it difficult to select, train and maintain top candidates. After the economy improved, many officers who had put off retirement decided it was time to leave. Younger officers started moving to other agencies where they saw more opportunity without the concern of layoffs. The result is that some agencies have more openings than applicants, and most agencies find they have many more openings than qualified applicants. Agency numbers got so low that many positions were open to fill across the board. Applicants with qualities that would have previously placed them in a non-hire group are getting a second look, and in many cases marginal candidates are getting a job offer at one agency or another. There are still plenty of wonderful candidates, just not enough to go around. It has become a very competitive hiring market. Not all agencies have the same issues is hiring. Some have more resources than others.
In many agencies this situation puts pressure on every part of the hiring process to move enough applicants forward to fill a growing number of vacancies. If each phase of the hiring process is looked at as a strainer, removing applicants who are deemed unacceptable in that phase while moving others forward, the holes in the strainers all along the way have become larger. Applicants are often given the benefit of the doubt at every step of the hiring process with the hope that the next step of the process will further determine if an applicant is likely to be successful. For example, a young candidate with limited life and work experience, who has not assumed responsibility in the past, and who does not appear as physically or academically ready for training, may pass the oral board with the hope that the background evaluation will find both positive and negative behaviors that will help determine his or her suitability for the job. The background investigator may not find many positive traits but having not found disqualifying behavior will move the applicant to the next phase in the hope that the psychological evaluation will stop the candidate if the candidate does not appear to be capable of performing the job duties. The psychologist may have been encouraged to abide by the California POST minimum standards, but “to set the bar no higher”. The psychologist may pass the applicant with the hope that the academy will aggressively screen out marginal cadets. Of course, good judgment, and decision making skills, people skills, stress management skills and integrity can never be compromised.
If the academy staff has pressure to graduate cadets, they may be less demanding hoping the probationary period will be aggressive in screening out probationers who do not function well. At the very least, this process places a huge responsibility on the shoulders of the FTO's.
The proliferation of pre-academy training programs has helped candidates get a clearer picture of the job’s demands and the expectations of new hires. The dream of six months on the job and a promotion to the special assignment of their choice should be put to rest.
Recent negative press and public scrutiny of police officers’ actions might be expected to affect the hiring pool. So far this has not been the case. People with an interest in the career do not seem to be discouraged. However, family members may be less supportive of the career choice.
As always, the hiring process is a system. Awareness of the entire process and a coordinated effort among those responsible for getting the best new officers will go a long way in creating professional law enforcement in the future.
The Applicant Puddle
Original 2000 Publication
Agencies large and small, busy and quiet, high paying and low paying are having difficulty finding qualified candidates to fill a growing number of vacancies. Administrators say they are not lowering standards to fill spots but applicants are scheduled for the psychological exam (the last step in the process) that would not have made it that far as recently as last year. I constantly hear comments from administrators such as, "this is the best applicant we had apply", or "you should have seen the applicants who failed the oral". Applicants are sent forward who have little life experience, who have never assumed responsibility, who have no idea what to expect in the academy and no idea what the job entails yet these applicants are starting to be at the top of the list. Others sent forward for psychological evaluation have job terminations, altercations, very poor academic performance or excessive drug usage. We all want to recruit new types of applicants who may not have thought of a law enforcement career in the past but they still need to be law enforcement oriented, respectful of authority and be able to develop command presence. They still need the support of their families and they need a realistic view of training and job demands. I hear of more and more new hires dropping out of the academy in the first few weeks because they change their mind about a the job.
Although every agency wants to hold out for well-qualified candidates who are good investments and likely to be successful there simply are not enough to go around. Creative recruitment campaigns have helped somewhat but the applicant pool has become an applicant puddle. A strong economy with many career alternatives, negative views of law enforcement in the media, demographics, and a different work ethic in the current recruitment age generation may all contribute to the problem. These are factors law enforcement agencies do not have the power to change. However, some changes can be made that should help fill the ranks with qualified personnel.
Some candidates are lost because of background standards that have not recently been reviewed. Make sure all standards are relevant to success on the job. For example, some agencies routinely disqualify candidates for very minor discrepancies in background information presented at various stages of the background process. Sometimes a misunderstanding or even a clerical error could be at fault and the error is not related to a lack of integrity. Inflexible background policies in this regard may weed out a candidate that may have been successful.
Sometimes a slow hiring process causes an agency to continually process towards the bottom of their list because better qualified candidates have accepted other jobs rather than wait for their first choice agency. A short-staffed department may not assign adequate resources to process new officers and the result is fewer staff.
The Field Training Officer is obviously more important in the hiring process than ever. FTO's need to see their job as molding a rookie into a successful police officer. They need to know the candidate is there because administration selected them and wants them as part of the department. But, FTO's also need to be able to recognize a problem that cannot be remedied and recommend an end to probation when necessary. Not an easy task when FTO's may see new officers as different then themselves in background and attitude.
Communicate openly and often with the psychologist who evaluates your applicants. Be sure they understand your needs and goals and be sure they are aware of your willingness and ability to work with different types of new officers. For example, do you have the resources to maintain personnel while they mature on the job? Also, find out how your psychologist makes decisions. Some psychologists still disqualify candidates simply because of test results. This practice leads to an unfair and higher than necessary disqualification rate.
In the current hiring atmosphere you cannot afford to lose good candidates and you definitely cannot afford to hire bad candidates.